Syrian rebels push to grab territory outside Aleppo
NORTHERN SYRIA (CNN) -- Rebels pushed to grab territory around Aleppo on Monday as fighting raged within the northern city.
Hours after capturing a government military base on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syrian rebels said they were using tanks they seized in earlier fighting to attack a military airfield north of the hotly contested metropolis, which has seen more than a week of bloody clashes.
Free Syrian Army Cmdr. Ahmed Afesh told CNN rebels were using tanks they confiscated from the Syrian army to shell the air base outside Azaz. The border town is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Aleppo.
Rebels were also securing control of the main highway that runs to Turkey from Aleppo, the commercial center of the country.
Battle scars were clear along the road. Near the military base that rebels seized -- a former restaurant -- the wreckage of an armored personnel carrier was smoldering. Inside, there were shell casings and abandoned army uniforms. Rebels were moving out cases of ammunition they had seized.
New heavy equipment captured during the battle for the base -- including four tanks in good condition -- was a boost for rebels, who have said that their weapons have been outmatched by the Syrian army's.
As the relentless battle for Syria's largest city continued Monday, Al Jazeera correspondent Omar Khashram was wounded during heavy fighting in a central Aleppo neighborhood. A cameraman and driver working with Khashram, who was being treated in a hospital in Turkey, told CNN that shrapnel from a shell penetrated gaps in the correspondent's flak jacket in Aleppo's Salahuddin neighborhood.
U.N. observers have reported a surge in violence in Aleppo, with helicopters, tanks and artillery being used, mission head Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye said Monday.
Regime forces launched missiles and shelled from attack helicopters, opposition activists said.
Aleppo, Syria's commercial and cultural hub, has seen a mass exodus amid the violence. About 200,000 people in and around the city have fled shelling and heavy weapon fire in the past two days, Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said Sunday.
In several neighborhoods, those who remained were left without phone, Internet or electricity service as tanks shelled the city, according to Deama, an activist in Aleppo. CNN isn't using her full name because disclosing it could put her in danger.
"We're afraid they are going to do something worse. Usually, they will cut off connections and isolate these neighborhoods more when they are about to make something worse," Deama said Monday.
Residents also faced bread and flour shortages, she said. Bakeries were shuttered.
"This is like punishment from the regime. They want to make people hungry," she said.
There were conflicting reports Monday on who controlled the major Aleppo neighborhood of Salahuddin, which rebels had claimed days earlier. Both opposition fighters and the regime said Monday they had taken over Salahuddin.
At least 85 people were killed across Syria on Monday, including 25 in Aleppo, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria.
With no end to the country's 16-month crisis in sight, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country will take more action to try to stop the bloodshed.
"As France is taking over the presidency of the U.N. Security Council on August 1, we are going to ask -- before the end of the week -- for a meeting of the Security Council, probably at a ministerial level ... to try and stop the massacres and prepare for the political transition," Fabius told French RTL radio on Monday.
Also on Monday, the top diplomat at the Syrian Embassy in London resigned his post, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office said. Charge d'Affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi told British officials that he was "no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people," the office said in a statement.
Earlier Monday, a Syrian brigadier general -- who is also a deputy police chief of Latakia -- defected to Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. An additional 11 Syrian officers also defected overnight, the ministry said. The total number of Syrians who have fled to Turkey has reached 43,500.
Meanwhile, fighting words continued between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and opponents near and far.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem gave ominous words Sunday about the battle for Aleppo, vowing that rebels would not gain control of the city.
"Since last week, (opposition fighters) planned for whatever they called the 'great Damascus battle,' but they have failed after one week," Moallem said, referring to a rebel offensive beaten back earlier this month. "That's why they moved to Aleppo, and I can assure you that they will fail."
He made his comments during a trip to Iran, one of his nation's few remaining allies.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted Sunday that the Syrian regime's violent crackdown in Aleppo will prove "a nail in Assad's coffin" by turning even more people against al-Assad and his government.
Nabil Elaraby, the head of the Arab League, said Sunday that the league believes war crimes are being committed in the city.
With reports of incessant attacks rocking Aleppo, the head of a prominent Syrian opposition group pleaded over the weekend for world allies to help arm rebels with "weapons that will allow us to stop tanks and planes."
"Our friends and allies will bear responsibility for the terrifying massacres that will happen in Aleppo if they don't move soon," Abdulbaset Sieda, head of the Syrian National Council, said Saturday.
The Syrian crisis started in March 2011, after al-Assad's regime violently cracked down on peaceful protests seeking his ouster. The Assad family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
More than 20,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the conflict, the LCC said. Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said almost 17,000 people have died.
On Monday, Ban said armed vehicles had protected the head of the U.N. observer mission and others in his convoy during an attack Sunday.
"The situation is getting worse and worse, and I'm deeply concerned. ... Now we really need the united international community's action and political will to resolve this issue as soon as possible," Ban told reporters Monday.