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Syrian rebels enter strategic area

31 March 2013, 09:10

Beirut - Syrian rebels pushed into a strategic neighbourhood in the northern city of Aleppo after days of heavy clashes, seizing control of at least part of the hilltop district and killing a pro-government cleric captured in the fighting, activists and state media said on Saturday.

There were conflicting reports about the scale of the advance into the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood by rebel forces battling to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the gains marked the biggest shift in the front lines in the embattled city in months.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a key battleground in the country's civil war since rebels launched an offensive there in July, seizing several districts before the fighting largely settled into a bloody stalemate.

The Aleppo Media Centre opposition group and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels seized full control of Sheikh Maqsoud late Friday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said rebels took only the eastern part of the neighbourhood, and reported heavy fighting there on Saturday.

Syria's state news agency SANA said government troops "eliminated scores of terrorists" in other parts of Aleppo mainly in the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Said, Masaken Hanano and Bustan al-Bacha. SANA did not mention the fighting in Sheikh Maqsoud.

Sheikh Maqsoud, which is predominantly inhabited by minority Kurds, is located on a hill on the northern edge of the city. The neighbourhood used to be known as "Our Lady's Mountain" and is considered one of the most strategic locations in the city because it overlooks much of Aleppo.

Activists predicted that regime forces would launch counterattacks to try to retake the area because if rebels keep holding Sheikh Maqsoud it will be easy for them to target regime-held areas with mortar shells.

- AP


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