A long-expected Syrian army onslaught to drive rebel forces out of Aleppo is imminent, following a military build-up around the country’s biggest city, a senior United Nations official said, as about 1,000 Syrians, including a defecting brigadier-general, have fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours.
Syrian troops stormed Damascus’s southern district of Tadamon with dozens of tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers, on Friday, in an attempt to win back control of the last rebel stronghold in the capital, a witness and activists said.
Forces loyal to Assad, known as Shabbiha, killed the imam of al-Zubair Mosque in al-Tadamoun neighborhood in Damascus, activists at the Sham Network said.
As many as 137 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian forces across the country on Friday, including 70 people killed in a new massacre in al-Arabaeen neighborhood in Hama, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Local Coordination Committees, reporting intensified fighting in several cities.
The violence came within hours of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan quitting as international peace envoy for Syria and underlined the impotence of mediation efforts in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad.
The fighting has spread to Aleppo from Damascus after a bomb attack on Assad’s security headquarters in the capital on July 18, which killed four of the president's senior aides and encouraged rebels to step up hostilities, according to Reuters.
The Syrian army has reinforced its positions in and around Aleppo over the past two weeks, while conducting daily artillery and aerial bombardments of rebel forces in the city.
“The focus two weeks ago was on Damascus. The focus is now on Aleppo, where there has been a considerable build-up of military means, and where we have reason to believe that the main battle is about to start,” Herve Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said in New York.
In Damascus, at least 20 people were killed when security forces fired three mortar rounds at a Palestinian camp that is home to 100,000 refugees, medical sources said. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip condemned the attack.
Rebels said on Friday they had captured a large police station in Aleppo after days of clashes. Rebel commander Abu Zaher said they had taken several police officers prisoner and seized weapons and ammunition.
Internet and telephone networks in Aleppo were cut for the third day, hampering attempts by rebels to coordinate and forcing them to use couriers to deliver orders.
Protesters in Aleppo took to the streets on Friday to demand death for Assad even as violence raged between regime forces and rebels, an AFP journalist and rights watchdog said.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in the al-Shaar neighborhood of the country’s economic capital, chanting: “The people want the execution of Bashar!” and “The people want freedom and peace,” an AFP reporter saw.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported demonstrations in the Saif al-Dawla, Furqan and New Aleppo neighborhoods in west Aleppo, as well as in Sukari, Bustan al-Qasr and Fardoss in the south.
It also reported protests in the Kurdish Hasakeh region, southern Deraa province and northwest Idlib province, where one demonstrator was shot dead by regime forces.
Meanwhile, about 1,000 Syrians, including a defecting brigadier-general, have fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours to escape intensifying violence, a Turkish official said on Friday.
The latest group brought the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to 45,500, up from 44,000 at the end of July, said the official, who asked not to be named. At least 25 military generals are among those who have taken refuge in Turkey.
A Syrian activist who monitors refugee flows at the border said 900 people from the towns of Aleppo and Idlib in Syria had arrived since Thursday, citing Turkish border guards, Reuters reported.
Of those, 20 civilians, including women and children, were wounded when their bus came under attack by government forces, said the activist, who declined to be named. They were being treated at Turkish hospitals, he said.
Turkish officials are concerned about a possible flood of refugees from Aleppo.
The 17-month uprising against Assad’s rule in Syria has created a refugee crisis in Turkey and other neighboring countries. Opposition sources say at least 18,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in March 2011.
Turkey’s army has begun staging drills at the Syrian border following warnings that it would follow Kurdish rebels across the frontier, the Anatolia news agency reported Friday.
Turkish tanks accompanied by armored personnel carriers and surface-to-air missile defenses are deployed at the Oncupinar crossing in southeastern Kilis province for the drills, the report said, adding that they would continue periodically.
Turkish media said the drills were a show of force against Damascus, which Ankara accuses of giving a free hand to allow Syrian Kurds to launch cross-border attacks in Turkey.
Turkey is also home to more than 45,000 Syrian refugees and supports the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), also based in Turkey.