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Both sides claim progress as Syrian violence continues

Violent clashes continued on Sunday in certain quarters of Aleppo and Damascus as Syrian government forces fought to regain control over areas that rebels claimed to have seized in recent days.
/ Source: The New York Times

Rebel commanders in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo vowed Sunday to liberate it from government control as intense street battles there entered a third day.

While the fighting appeared to be spreading in Aleppo, skirmishes in Damascus petered out on Sunday as large numbers of government troops were deployed to shut down the rebels in one neighborhood after another where they had gained footholds last week.

“We have cleared Qaboun of terrorists, and now we are going to finish them off in other sections of Damascus and beyond,” said one soldier wearing camouflage fatigues who was interviewed on Syrian state television.

The television report and videos posted by activists from Qaboun, a northeastern suburb of the capital, reflected a situation similar to that reported in several other Damascus neighborhoods where fighting erupted last week.

State television showed deserted streets strewn with rubble and an occasional body rotting in the sun, and video from Qaboun showed asphalt streets torn up by the tracks of armored vehicles. Opposition activists said the government used tanks, artillery and rockets fired from helicopters to subdue various areas.

Fighting apparently still flared on Sunday in parts of Mezze, a western neighborhood, where videos on YouTube showed columns of smoke rising.

But Syrian government television sought to portray life in the capital as returning to normal, highlighting video from the Midan area, a battleground last week, where cleanup crews were seen wielding brooms and happy citizens heard declaring that the bakery was selling bread again.

Another report by Syrian television featured interviews with people from a neighborhood where it said that citizens had asked the army to intervene. They thanked God that they no longer had to “live in fear,” now that the terrorists — the government’s usual term for its opponents — had been chased away and “security restored.”

The lengthy report said the Syrian army was winning the battle on many fronts, including Damascus, Hama, Homs and other cities, because of the army’s “long experience confronting terrorism and imperialism.”

President Bashar al-Assad appeared on state television on Sunday for the second time since the assassination of four top security officials Wednesday in a bombing in Damascus. This time he was shown — though not heard — meeting with his new army chief of staff.

An emergency meeting of Arab League ministers in Doha, Qatar, ended with what the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, told reporters was agreement that Mr. Assad should step down and that the rebel Free Syrian Army should form a transitional government. Mr. Assad has resisted such calls from the United States and other powers.

In Aleppo, the opposition fighters seemed to be using momentum gained in the last week to spread the fight into new districts of the city. A report on state television purported to show traffic circulating normally, and claimed that foreign satellite channels were spreading false rumors about fierce clashes in the city. But a video from opposition activists seemed to show a column of tanks moving into one Aleppo neighborhood and spraying machine-gun fire into alleyways and apartment houses as they passed.

Neither version of events could be independently confirmed.

Activists said that rebel fighters had the upper hand in three Aleppo neighborhoods — Sakhour, Salaheddin and Meridian — and opposition figures said they were pressing government forces on several fronts, including the area around police headquarters near the city center. The clashes that started in earnest on Friday were the first sustained fighting in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and the country’s main commercial center, which had been a bastion of support for Mr. Assad since the uprising began in March 2011.

“We issued the orders for the march into Aleppo with the goal of liberating it, and from there to liberate the rest of Syria,” said a man in a crisp uniform who appeared in an opposition video. The video identified him as Col. Abdul-Jabber Mohammed Aqidi and said he commanded the Unity Brigade, a newly announced coalition of rebel fighters around Aleppo.

He is heard encouraging government soldiers to defect to the opposition, and vowing that the rebels would protect members of President Assad’s minority sect, the Alawites, who account for many military officers and government officials. “Our war is not with you, but with the Assad family,” he says in the video in remarks addressed to Alawites.

Another YouTube video purported, somewhat confusingly, to show the joint command of the Unity Brigade, with six men in camouflage fatigues or street clothes at a table, none of whom are Colonel Aqidi. They, too, are heard asserting that a battle to liberate Aleppo from the government had been joined.

“We call on all supporters in Aleppo to cooperate with the mujahedeen and to support them,” one of the men says in the video, adding that any rebel fighter who tampered with public or private property would be punished.

The last rebel fighter to speak in that video offered an insulting allusion to the president’s surname, which means lion in Arabic. “The battle has started to liberate Aleppo from the Assad battalions,” he said. “A dog remains a dog, even if you call him a lion.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria, and Kareem Fahim from Jabir, Jordan.

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.