Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad clashed with rebels in Aleppo as the United Nations warned of a “major confrontation” in the country’s largest city.
Opposition groups also reported fighting in the northern province of Idlib, Daraa to the south and the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, where the government used helicopter gunships to blast rebel hideouts, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Protests against Assad erupted in Homs, Hama and other provinces after Friday prayers, Al Arabiya television reported.
State media said the army killed four “terrorists” after prayers in Daraa, and authorities dismantled eight bombs near a mosque in the Damascus suburb of Hajar al-Aswad.
International and regional efforts have failed to end the violence in Syria, which began in March 2011 and has left at least 19,000 people dead, including about 5,000 government troops, according to the Observatory. At least 40 people were killed today, including 10 in Daraa, nine in Damascus and its suburbs and six in Aleppo, the opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay “expressed particular concern about the likelihood of an imminent major confrontation” in Aleppo, according to a statement posted on the UN website today.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is moving some of foreign staff out of Damascus to Beirut in neighboring Lebanon due to “security conditions,” spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini said today by phone from Geneva. A 50-member team, including 11 expatriates, will remain in the city, she said.
“The situation in Aleppo is extremely volatile and in Damascus, too, thousands of people have fled their homes in search of safety,” the Red Cross said in a statement.
Aleppo is Syria’s commercial capital with a population the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates at 3 million.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague demanded that Assad’s government call off the assault and urged all countries to join in condemnation, including Russia and China.
Russia and China used their vetoes in the UN Security Council on July 19 to block for the third time a Western-drafted resolution that called for an arms embargo and other sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation.
“I am deeply concerned by reports that the Syrian government is amassing its troops and tanks around Aleppo and has already begun a vicious assault on the city and its civilian population,” Hague said in an e-mailed statement. “This utterly unacceptable escalation of the conflict could lead to a devastating loss of civilian life and a humanitarian disaster.”
The U.S. has “grave concerns” about Assad’s military actions, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday in Washington. The U.S. is alarmed that that “we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for,” she said.
The newspaper Al-Watan, which is close to the government, led yesterday with the headline “Aleppo, the mother of all battles.” Citing an Arab diplomatic source, Al-Watan said, “Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.”
Turkey warned that it may take action against Kurdish groups with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that have taken control of several towns in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
“We won’t allow such a structure on our borders,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a television interview today, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency. He accused Assad’s government of permitting the Kurdish groups to seize border areas in order to stir up ethnic conflict and threaten Turkey.
Davutoglu’s comments came after Turkish media reported that a group called the Democratic Union of Kurdistan, affiliated to the PKK, had taken control of towns near the border including Kobane and Efrin as Assad’s forces withdrew.
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