Last Updated: Sun Aug 05, 2012 12:44 pm (KSA) 09:44 am (GMT)

Clinton visits Turkey for Syria talks as army pounds rebels in Aleppo

Syrian army prepares for a ground assault on rebels quarters in Aleppo. (Reuters)
Syrian army prepares for a ground assault on rebels quarters in Aleppo. (Reuters)

U.S. Secretary State of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Turkey next week to hold talks with the Turkish government on Syria, a State Department spokeswoman said on Sunday.

“Secretary Clinton goes to Istanbul for bilateral consultations with the Turkish government on Syria as well as to cover other timely issues,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement to reporters. The talks in Istanbul would be held on August 11, she added

The leader of Syria's main political opposition group said he was ready to negotiate with government officials whose hands are not "stained with blood", once President Bashar al-Assad and his associates leave power, according to an interview published on Sunday.

“As far as we are concerned, the authorities have lost their credibility and legitimacy, and we have said this in Moscow bluntly: that dialogue with this regime is no longer possible,” Seida said.

“Bashar and his gang must leave and after that we will move to negotiate with other officials whose hands were not stained with Syrian blood and who were not involved in big corruption cases,” he added.

Iran appealed for help from governments with ties to the Syrian opposition in securing the release of 48 of its nationals seized from a bus in Damascus as Al Arabiya aired footage of the Iranians in the hands of rebel captors who charged that their hostages were Revolutionary Guards.

At least two rebel fighters were killed in early morning clashes in Aleppo, the scene of heavy fighting since July 20, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Troops shelled rebel-held Salaheddin district in the southwest and clashes erupted in the Sukkari, Hamdaniyeh and Ansari neighbourhoods, the Britain-based watchdog said.

The opposition Syrian National Council charged that the army”s bombardment of the rebels was hitting key public institutions in the commercial capital, some of historical significance.

“After failing to subdue (rebel forces) in Aleppo... the Syrian regime”s gangs have started to target government institutions and buildings,” the exiled opposition group said in a statement.

“Some of them have historical and archaeological value.”

Aleppo preserves a raft of historical sites, including its renowned 13th century citadel. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation named the Ancient City a World Heritage Site in 1986, citing its “outstanding universal value.”

The SNC accused the army of shelling Aleppo”s television building.

“The criminal regime does not hesitate to shell these institutions,” the group said, adding: “The rebels were forced to move away from the television building in order to protect the Syrian people”s property and heritage.”

Rebels tried to storm the state television building on Saturday before being driven back by shelling, the Observatory said.

State media said the army defended the site from “mercenary terrorist groups.”

“Just the appetizer”

A senior government security figure warned that “the battle for Aleppo has not yet begun, and what is happening now is just the appetizer... The main course will come later.”

The official said more reinforcements had arrived and that at least 20,000 troops were now on the ground. “The other side are also sending reinforcements,” the official added of the rebels, who claim to have seized half the city.

The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said on Sunday that the army had killed “hundreds of terrorists” in Aleppo but that between 6,000 and 8,000 remained in the city.

On Saturday, violence nationwide killed 205 people -- 115 civilians, 38 rebel fighters and 52 soldiers, the Observatory said.

Because of restrictions on the free movement of journalists in Syria, it is impossible to independently verify death tolls and claims of either side.

The Syrian army said on Saturday it had seized the last rebel-held district of Damascus and authorities took journalists on an escorted tour.

A brigadier general told reporters the Tadamun neighborhood had been retaken after heavy fighting and that the military now controls all of the capital.

“We have cleansed all the districts of Damascus, from Al-Midan to Mazzeh, from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad to Qadam... to Tadamun,” said the officer.

Iran appealed to Qatar and Turkey, which both have close relations with the Syrian opposition, for help in securing the release of 48 nationals it says were seized while on pilgrimage to the Sayyida Zeinab shrine in the southeastern suburbs of Damascus.

Al-Arabiya TV aired footage on Sunday which it said was of the Iranians in the captivity of rebel Free Syrian Army fighters who charged that their hostages were elite Revolutionary Guards.

Tehran, Damascus”s key regional ally, has repeatedly denied it has sent any military units to Syria.

Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Saturday before the latest abduction was made public that “Iran has no armed forces in Syria and the Syrian government has not made such a request,” according to Iranian state television channel IRIB.

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