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Syrian rebels defiant despite retreat from key districts

Syrian observers reported renewed shelling and air strikes in Aleppo on Friday, a day after rebels were driven out of the key district of Salaheddin by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

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AFP - Syrian rebels vowed to fight on in Aleppo a day after being driven out of a key district under heavy shellfire, which was targeting other parts of the strategic city on Friday.

That came as world powers were set to name veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as their new envoy to seek a peaceful and politically workable end to a 17-month uprising that has cost more than 21,000 lives.

A rebel commander, Hossam Abu Mohammed, said his men were still fighting in parts of Aleppo's southwestern district of Salaheddin after most fled on Thursday under heavy bombing and advancing troops.

"We will not let Salaheddin go," the Free Syrian Army's Abu Mohammed told AFP by telephone as the third day of a government offensive to take the city raged.

The army again bombed parts of Salaheddin on Friday, as well as the Sakhur and Hanano districts of the east of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that the violence killed two civilians.

Just before dawn, a MiG 21 fighter jet dropped four bombs on rebel positions in Hanano, an AFP correspondent reported.

One struck the courtyard of the FSA headquarters in the neighbourhood and another nearby house, wounding a number of people.

Angry residents shouted hostile slogans against France and the United States, saying: "No one is helping us."

"We are behind the Free Syrian Army, but it is because of them that all of this is happening," one of them lamented.

Fighting on Thursday killed 27 people in Aleppo, 15 of them civilians, the Britain-based Observatory said.

They were among at least 191 people killed nationwide – 107 civilians, 45 rebels and 39 soldiers.

On Thursday, Abu Mohammed said fighters withdrew to the Sukari district, a bit more than a mile (1.5 kilometres) to the southeast of Salaheddin, and were preparing for a counter-attack.

Wassel Ayub, who commands the Nur al-Haq Brigade, said the FSA had withdrawn "to open a new front in Saif al-Dawla and Mashhad."

In Damascus, a security source said regime forces were "advancing quickly" towards Saif al-Dawla, immediately east of Salaheddin, but that the next big battle would be in Sukari.

Meanwhile, diplomats at the United Nations said former Algerian foreign minister Brahimi was expected to be named as the new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria.

Negotiations were still underway over the envoy's role and how the United Nations will operate in Syria amid the intensifying civil war. The mandate of the UN mission in the country ends on August 20.

An official announcement of the 78-year-old's appointment is expected to be made early next week, diplomats said.

Brahimi was the UN envoy in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks and in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary general, resigned from the post saying he had not received enough international support for his efforts to end the conflict but is staying on until August 31.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, appointed Health Minister Wael al-Halqi as his new premier following the defection this week of Riad Hijab, a leading Sunni Muslim in his minority Alawite-dominated regime.

Halqi served as ruling Baath party secretary from 2000 to 2004 in his home province of Daraa, south of Damascus, cradle of the anti-Assad revolt.

Key Assad ally Iran backed moves to start peace talks between his government and the opposition as it hosted a 29-nation conference on the conflict on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters after the meeting that "a major part of the opposition has announced that it is ready to negotiate with the Syrian government in Tehran without any preconditions."

There was no confirmation from the opposition, which, like the regime and Western governments, did not attend the Tehran conference.

Damascus state-owned Tishrin said the Tehran meeting "could put in place a balanced and objective regional and international approach to resolve the crisis ... contrary to other conferences that served to advance non-Syrian agendas and recommended solutions that would cause more Syrian blood to flow."

But White House spokesman Jay Carney hit out at Iran's role in Syria when asked whether the conference was credible or helpful.

"There is vast evidence that demonstrates that Iran has been engaged in an effort to prop up Assad as he brutally murders his own people," Carney said.

On the humanitarian front, the International Committee for the Red Cross said the Syrian Red Crescent had suspended most of its work in Aleppo because of the extreme danger, but that dozens of volunteers were still working.

A statement in Geneva said the ICRC had managed on Thursday to deliver food and other essential to cover the needs of at least 12,500 people in the city of some 2.7 million people.

 

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