ALEPPO, Syria: Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shelled rebel-held areas across Syria on Sunday as fierce clashes were reported in second city Aleppo where a fire tore through a medieval souk.
The fighting in Aleppo city was accompanied by intense overnight shelling that continued into the morning, destroying houses and killing at least three people including two civilians, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, has been the main battleground for the past two months of the country’s 18-month conflict, and has been gripped by fighting on an unprecedented scale in recent days.
Much of the violence has centred in and around the Old City, and this is believed to have sparked the fire in the centuries-old souk marketplace which destroyed many shops, said an AFP correspondent and the Observatory.
Clashes were reported elsewhere in the northern province of Aleppo, where rebel mortar fire damaged two helicopters at the Al-Nairab military airport, said the group which relies on a network of activists on the ground.
In Damascus province, rebels killed nine soldiers when they attacked a military checkpoint on the road linking the capital with Qatana to the southwest, the Britain-based Observatory reported.
That came after soldiers backed by aerial firepower stormed the rebel stronghold of Harasta as regime forces carried out arrest raids in the town of Zabadani, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Elsewhere, troops trying to dislodge rebels fired heavy artillery into areas of the southern province of Daraa, central region of Hama and Idlib in the country’s northwest, said the Observatory.
In the northeastern province of Hasakeh, the army fired on several houses, injuring several people, as security forces conducted arrest operations in the coastal city of Banias, it added.
UN spokesman Khaled al-Masri told AFP, meanwhile, that Mokhtar Lamani, the head of UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s office in Syria, met with a commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army in a central part of the country.
Lamani held talks with Colonel Kassem Saadeddine in the town of Talbisseh, Homs province, and other members of the FSA, which is made up of army deserters and civilians who have taken up arms against the Assad regime.
The official also met with the governor of Homs province, Ghassan Abdelaal, as well as representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent.
Separately, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari vowed to stop and search any flights from top Damascus ally Iran over its territory suspected of carrying weapons to Syria.
“We have assured US officials that the Iraqi government is determined to land (Iranian) flights and carry out random searches,” Zebari said, quoted by Arabic daily Al-Hayat.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed Baghdad to deliver on pledges to stop such flights during a meeting with Iraqi Vice President Kudayr al-Khuzaie.
Zebari said the flights first started in March and were stopped after the Iraqis called on the Iranians to do so. By late July, however, the flights resumed.
“They (the Iranians) said they were not carrying weapons or ammunition but pilgrims, visitors and other things,” said Zebari, adding that “just to be sure, we will land these planes.”
The United States, which has refused to arm the rebellion, unveiled on Friday a total of $45 million (35 million euros) in new funding for humanitarian aid and to help civilians trapped by the conflict.
Violence across Syria killed 118 people on Saturday — 48 civilians, 41 soldiers and 29 rebels, the Observatory said, adding to its toll of over 30,000 killed since an anti-regime uprising erupted in March 2011.
In its most recent estimate, the United Nations put the overall toll from the conflict at more than 20,000 dead.