Aleppo, Syria (CNN) — The Syrian government and rebel groups on Wednesday offered opposing accounts about who controls the volatile neighborhood of Salaheddine in the city of Aleppo.
The London-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces initiated a ground assault on Salaheddine early Wednesday, entering the district but partially withdrawing after encountering fierce clashes with rebel fighters.
That account was corroborated by Free Syrian Army sources in Aleppo.
An FSA member who goes by the nom de guerre Sheikh Abu Hussein told CNN that some 200 Syrian ground forces supported by tanks tried to enter Salaheddine but were pushed back.
Abu Hussein said at least one tank and an armored vehicle were destroyed and that 32 government troops and three rebels were killed.
A second FSA source calling himself Abu Ayham said late Wednesday that the situation was “quiet.” He said he had counted four government tanks destroyed by rebels.
State television, which has consistently referred to rebels as “terrorists,” offered an opposing view: “Our armed brave forces continue to cleanse Salaheddine district from remnants of terrorists who ran away when scores of them were killed,” it said, citing a reporter in Aleppo. “There are hundreds (of dead) among the ranks of the terrorists in Salaheddine district.”
The struggle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, represents a key fight in the conflict, which has morphed into a civil war in the months since government forces began cracking down on peaceful protesters in March 2011.
Roughly 17,000 people have been killed since the fighting began, the United Nations said last month. The opposition has put the toll at more than 20,000. At least 141 people were killed Wednesday across Syria, including 30 in Aleppo, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
Regime forces and rebels have been fighting for days in Aleppo and neighborhoods including Salaheddine. Syrian State TV said its armed forces killed and captured “terrorists,” including “mercenaries who are non-Syrian nationals” in the neighborhood.
Military fighter jets, helicopters and tanks unleashed an intensive bombardment on the virtually deserted area, FSA commanders said.
FSA fighter Abu Ayham al-Halaby reported deaths and injuries. The LCC said the Salaheddine Mosque was targeted in the shelling.
The FSA is poorly equipped but its ammunition supply is adequate, said commanders, who cited an arsenal that included AK-47s and Austrian-made automatic weapons.
And the supply lines to Aleppo, which is located near Turkey, are open, and the lightly armed fighters have managed to hold off the army.
“We believe in God, in this Kalashnikov, old Kalashnikov,” an elderly fighter who calls himself Alexander said. “We can fight them and we will win because we have iman — faith — We have faith. We believe in God. They don’t believe in God.”
Read more: Syria timeline — From uprising to civil war
The shelling has led thousands of residents to flee; civilians who remain in the city have scrambled to find food and water. One loaf of bread, made with flour provided by the Free Syrian Army and wealthy benefactors, is allotted each family member each day.
The warfare has taken a toll on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has been hit by assassinations and political and military defections.
The latest high-level defection came from Riyad Hijab, who had assumed the position of prime minister two months ago. Citing the “killing and terrorist regime,” he defected Wednesday to Jordan.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, in an interview with CBS News, raised the specter of partition, suggesting the creation of a state for Alawites, the members of the minority offshoot of Shiites who dominate the government. About three-quarters of Syrians are Sunni.
“I have a feeling that if he can’t rule greater Syria, then maybe an Alawi enclave is Plan B and that’s something that needs to be considered,” Abdullah said, referring to al-Assad. The historic Alawi region is around Latakia and Tartous on the Mediterranean coast. Many Alawites also live in and around Homs and Hama and other cities.
Read more: Q&A — What options are left in Syria?
Iranian officials visited capitals in the region to discuss the situation and get help to free dozens of Iranians abducted over the weekend by rebels in Syria.
Iranian media initially reported that the 48 abductees were pilgrims on a visit. In a televised video later, FSA rebels claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying the captives were not pilgrims, but were members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said they included retired members of the guards, the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported Wednesday.
“The desire to visit holy places in Syria is so strong that we cannot stop the faithful from making these pilgrimages,” Salehi said.
In a letter to the United Nations asking for its help in freeing the people, Salehi on Tuesday cited reports saying three of the captives had been killed.
Iran, an ally of Syria, has asked Turkey to help secure the release of the captives because Turkey is sympathetic to the rebels.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry announced it would make “all efforts” to secure the Iranian captives’ release. However, Iran’s foreign minister appeared to have gotten a chilly reception in Ankara on Tuesday because of Turkish anger at recent comments by a senior Iranian military commander who accused Turkey of being responsible for blood spilled in Syria.
“We strongly condemn the statements full of unfounded accusations and very inappropriate threats related with our country by some Iranian officials, especially the statement by Iranian Chief of General Staff Hasan Firuzabadi published on the internet site of Iran Revolutionary Guard,” the ministry said Tuesday in a written statement.
Tehran, meanwhile, extolled its “axis of resistance” with Syria against other world powers as Saeed Jalili, a top Iranian official, met Tuesday with the Syrian president in a display of solidarity.
Syrian state media quoted Jalili as saying in a meeting with al-Assad that Iran will not permit “enemies” to interfere in Syria. It was the first public video of the president since last month.
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