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Many Syrians reportedly fleeing Aleppo

Cities see new clashes

BEIRUT – New clashes and military shellings were reported Sunday in Syria’s two major cities, as the warring sides in the country’s escalating conflict intensified their information battle on the airwaves, the Internet and social media.

A rebel commander identified as Col. Abduljabbar Aqidi declared in an opposition video released on YouTube that the battle had begun to “liberate” the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial and business hub. Reached by Skype, Aqidi said rebels controlled three neighborhoods and had repulsed a counterattack by government forces, killing 20 soldiers. Clashes continued into the night, he said.

Rebel officials called the assault on Aleppo a planned offensive and publicly warned people to stay in their homes. Many residents were reported to be fleeing the city.

The official state media, on the other hand, reported that authorities in Aleppo had inflicted “heavy losses” on “terrorists,” the government’s term for the armed rebels.

In a conflict that many now view as sectarian in nature, the rebel colonel publicly vowed to protect the rights of minority Christians and Alawites, the sect of President Bashar Assad. The rebellion has risen from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Aleppo has a substantial population of Christians, and many are worried about a potential Islamist takeover of Syria if the secular Assad government is overthrown.

In Damascus, opposition activists reported a determined military assault on the Mezzeh district, home to many embassies and offices. One activist in the city reported at least eight killed and 60 wounded.

Until a week ago, Damascus and Aleppo had been largely insulated from the violence flaring in Syria’s provinces.

The activists on Sunday also reported a new wave of government attacks in Damascus involving artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships targeting opposition strongholds.

A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, issued an “urgent” appeal on behalf of besieged residents of the Mezzeh district, where the “regime bombardment” stranded many without medical attention, the group said on its Facebook page. One Damascus-based activist reported that five people were executed after the shelling.

On state-run media, the talk was of a return to “normal life in Damascus,” with the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency dismissing as “baseless” opposition claims of aerial bombardment.