Heavy shelling and fighting erupted across swathes of Syria’s second city of Aleppo on Tuesday, as both the regime and rebels claimed they were gaining ground in the key northern battleground.
At least 24 people were reported killed nationwide, among them women and children in Aleppo, as the regime pressed its onslaught on rebel areas a day after US President Barack Obama warned Damascus over its chemical weapons arsenal.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted by bluntly telling the West not to meddle in Syria, but also criticized the regime for failing to do enough to end a conflict that has exposed deep rifts among world powers.
On the ground, and heavy shelling was reported in Aleppo, including an area where a Japanese journalist was killed after being caught up in gunfire on Monday, while war planes bombarded the northern town of Marea, activists said.
The rebel Free Syrian Army said Tuesday it controlled almost two thirds of Aleppo, which has been battered by a month of air strikes, shelling and fighting, but a security source in Damascus rejected the claims.
Activists also reported that troops had stormed a town near Damascus, torching homes and shops, while helicopters and war planes strafed several suburbs of the capital, which the regime claimed to have largely recaptured last month.
The death of Japanese female reporter Mika Yamamoto, 45, brought to four the number of foreign journalists killed in Syria since the uprising erupted against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three other journalists — a Lebanese woman, an Arab male and a Turkish national — were missing.
Obama had put Assad’s regime on notice Monday that although he had not ordered military intervention “at this point,” the United States was “monitoring the situation very carefully,” and had drawn up contingency plans.
“There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons… That would change my calculations significantly,” he told reporters.
Obama said the United States would regard any recourse by Damascus to its deadly arsenal as crossing a “red line.”
Syria’s admission in July that it has chemical weapons and could use them in case of any “external aggression” added a dangerous dimension to a conflict that has now killed at least 23,000 people, according to the Observatory.
But Lavrov, whose government is one of the regime’s few remaining allies, said Tuesday: “There should be no interference from the outside.”
“The only thing that foreign players should do is create conditions for the start of dialogue.”
The UN Security Council has so far failed to agree on action to contain the bloodshed or deal with the increasingly embattled Assad after Russia and China both vetoed resolutions on the conflict.
But Lavrov also told a visiting Syrian envoy that efforts by Damascus to end the conflict were “not enough.”
Lakhdar Brahimi, who has replaced former UN chief Kofi Annan as international Syria envoy, warned Sunday that it was now a matter of ending civil war rather than avoiding it, but has come under fire for failing to call for Assad’s ouster.
Syria — which insists it is fighting an insurgency by “armed terrorist groups” backed by the West, Gulf states and Turkey — said that to speak of civil war “contradicts reality.”
However, the escalating violence prompted the UN to end its observer mission in Syria on Sunday.
The conflict has descended into a bloody stalemate, with scores of people reportedly being killed every day as the regime battles rebels in their main strongholds and other pockets of resistance across the country.
A top Free Syrian Army commander, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, said the rebels held sway in more than 30 districts of Aleppo, the country’s now battered commercial capital that had largely avoided the conflict until a month ago.
‘The people are with us’
“We now control more than 60 percent of the city of Aleppo, and each day we take control of new districts,” Okaidi said. “The people are with us… How else do you think we could have lasted a month?”
But a security source in Damascus dismissed the claims.
“This is completely false,” the source told AFP. “The terrorists are not advancing, it is the army that is making slow progress.
The regime has warned of a “mother of all battles” to recapture Aleppo, where the Britain-based Observatory reported shelling on Tuesday that killed nine civilians, among them two women and two children.
War planes also pounded the towns of Marea and Tall Rifaat to the north, the Britain-based Observatory said.
“The army bombarded rebel weapons stocks in the Aleppo region to prevent the arms from reaching them [in the city],” the Syrian security official told AFP. “Reinforcements from both sides are heading to Aleppo. It is a war that will last a long time.”
Tuesday’s violence followed a bloody day in which 167 people were killed nationwide, the Observatory said.
The Syrian conflict echoed in neighboring Lebanon overnight, with running clashes between pro- and anti-Damascus regime supporters leaving 33 people wounded in the northern port city of Tripoli, security officials said.