Syrian opposition said they had regained control over parts of a strategic district of Aleppo on Thursday after countering a sustained assault by President Bashar al-Assad's forces seeking to retake Syria's biggest city.
They said army tanks had pulled back from Salaheddine, the southern gateway to Aleppo, and pockets of fighting continued across the district which Syrian official media said on Wednesday had been “cleansed” of opposition fighters.
Assad must win the battle for Aleppo if he is to reassert his authority nationwide, although diverting military forces for an offensive to regain control there has already allowed the opposition to seize large swathes of countryside in the north.
As part of a broader army offensive, Assad's forces attacked the opposition on several fronts including a neighborhood near the airport in south-east Aleppo, several eastern districts, and a town on Aleppo's northwestern outskirts, state media said.
Reuters journalists in Tel Rifaat, 20 miles (35 kilometers) north of Aleppo, watched a Syrian air force jet diving and firing rockets, causing villagers to flee in panic.
Abu Ali, an opposition brigade commander, told Reuters in Aleppo he had rallied 400 fighters of the Amr bin al-Aas brigade in response to Wednesday's army offensive in Salaheddine.
“We are here to be martyred,” he told his men before joining them - despite being confined to a wheelchair by a recent wound - and coordinating their operations via walkie-talkie.
“In Salaheddine now there are certain areas controlled by the [opposition] Free Syrian Army and some by the Syrian army,” said Abu Ali, adding that his men were in control of the main Salaheddine square.
Despite persistent opposition concerns about low levels of ammunition, Abu Ali said they were able to keep some supplies flowing to the fighters, though he would not give details.
Though sympathetic to the opposition, Western powers, Turkey and Sunni Muslim Arab states have not intervened militarily. Russia has given Assad diplomatic backing which has blocked UN action against Assad, while Iran has tried to bolster the Syrian leader in an Arab world where many view non-Arab, Shiite Iran as a menace.
Aleppo, at the heart of Syria's failing economy, has taken a fearful pounding since the 17-month-old uprising against Assad finally took hold in a city that had stayed mostly aloof.
The intensity of the conflict in Aleppo suggests that Assad remains determined to cling to power, with support from Iran and Russia, despite setbacks such as this week's defection of his newly installed prime minister.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition watchdog, said more than 170 people had been killed across Syria on Wednesday, including 33 civilians in Aleppo. It put Tuesday's death toll at more than 240 nationwide.
The military's assaults in Aleppo follow its drive to retake neighborhoods seized by the opposition in Damascus after a July 18 bomb attack that killed four of Assad's closest aides, the biggest strike by Assad's foes so far.
On Monday, Assad suffered the embarrassment of seeing his prime minister, Riyad Hijab, defect after only two months in office. Hijab fled to Jordan with his family.
Yet even such high-profile defections and outside diplomatic pressure seem unlikely to deflect Assad from what has become a bitter struggle for survival between mostly Sunni Muslim opposition and a ruling system dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect, an esoteric offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syrian opposition fighters, who have accused Iran of sending fighters to help Assad's forces, seized 48 Iranians in Syria on Aug. 4, saying they were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. An Iranian Foreign Ministry official said on Thursday that all the Iranian captives were alive and well, contrary to statements by the opposition holding them that three had been killed in an air attack.