By Bassem Mroue
BEIRUT: Syrian rebels pushed into a strategic neighborhood 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 Saturday.
There were conflicting reports about the scale of the advance into the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood 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 Center 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 neighborhood, and reported heavy fighting there Saturday.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said government troops “eliminated scores of terrorists” in other parts of Aleppo mainly in the neighborhoods 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 neighborhood 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.
The media center and the Observatory both reported that residents were fleeing the neighborhood to safer areas. The media center said regime tanks around the neighborhood were shelling the area.
An amateur video showed about two-dozen gunmen standing in front of a building owned by the Syrian government. In the video, one of the gunmen claims that rebels and their “Kurdish brothers liberated Sheikh Maqsoud of Assad’s criminal gangs and shabiha,” or pro-government militiamen.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting that the Associated Press did on events depicted in the footage.
Saeed, the Aleppo-based activist, said several rebel groups, including Kurdish gunmen, took control of the neighborhood after launching an attack, titled “Kurdish Fraternity,” on Thursday. He said that on Saturday fighting intensified on the eastern edge of the area around an army post known as Awamid.
The Observatory said rebels captured a pro-government Sunni Muslim cleric in the fighting, killed him and then paraded his body through the neighborhood.