KILIS, Turkey – Fighting in Aleppo spread to new areas Tuesday as rebels try to expand their hold inside Syria's largest city despite two weeks of withering counterattacks by President Bashar Assad's troops, activists said.
Heavily armed government troops have been steadily shelling rebel-controlled parts of the city, particularly Salaheddine and other districts on the southwestern edge of Aleppo, for more than two weeks as the two sides fight for control over the strategic city.
Activist Tamam Hazem said fierce clashes were going on Tuesday in Bab Jnein and Sabee Bahrat districts near the historic city center, suggesting the rebels were making inroads. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also says fighting Tuesday has extended to new parts of the city.
"We are expecting a massacre in Aleppo. The regime is bringing reinforcements to the city because they consider that if Aleppo falls, the regime will fall," said a Syrian refugee in Turkey who identified himself as Abu Ahmad.
"The city is being bombed from the air and ground," he said, adding he was in daily contact with residents still in the city.
Despite a ferocious crackdown, rebels in Syria have grown more confident using increasingly bolder tactics both in Aleppo and the Syrian capital, Damascus.
In a brazen, daylight attack, rebels this week abducted a group of 48 Iranians near Damascus, branding them as spies assisting in Assad's crackdown against the rebels.
Iran said those captured when their bus was commandeered were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Damascus. On Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Ministry said it holds the US. responsible for the fate of the abducted Iranians.
Iran's state IRNA news agency said the ministry summoned the Swiss envoy in Tehran late Monday to stress that Iran expects Washington to use its influence to secure the Iranians' release. The Swiss look after U.S. interests in Iran since Tehran and Washington have no diplomatic relations.
The abductions threaten to suck Iran deeper into Syria's civil war and the wider political brinksmanship around the region. Iran says it has no fighting forces aiding Assad, but it has sharply amplified its criticism of countries supporting the rebels such as neighboring Turkey and Gulf states led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian Embassy in Turkey said Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi is traveling to Turkey and will meet Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on Tuesday to discuss Syria and the situation of dozens of Iranians abducted outside Damascus.
In Damascus, a senior Iranian envoy, Saeed Jalili, was to meet with Assad and hold a press conference later Tuesday.
Syrian rebels claimed three of the Iranian captives were killed on Monday during shelling by government forces in Damascus and its suburbs, and threatened to kill the remaining Iranians unless the army stopped its bombardment.
"The Syrian regime is responsible for anything that happens to the Iranians," a spokesperson from the Baraa Brigades that claimed responsibility for the group's abduction told The Associated Press on Skype.
However the spokesperson's claim that three of the captives were killed could not be independently verified. An official at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus said he had no information on the subject.
While skirmishes were reported in the Syrian capital overnight and its suburbs Tuesday, the main battle has now moved to Aleppo, some 350 kilometers (215 miles) north of Damascus where rebels seized several neighborhoods two weeks ago and have proved difficult to dislodge.
Aleppo is Syria's commercial hub and it's close to the Turkish border where the rebels have their rear bases. If the opposition were to gain control, it would be a major blow to the regime and a possible opposition base of operations.
"The rebels are making their way closer to the city center despite the bombing using everything from planes and helicopters to artillery shells and machine guns," Hazem, the activist, said.
He said clashes were also reported around the medieval citadel, a symbol of the city that dominates its ancient center.
Ahmad Saleh, a Syrian from the town of Tal Rifaat near the Turkish border, said the town was shelled Monday from the nearby air base of Minnegh, killing two people. Saleh, who fled to Turkey after midnight Tuesday, said pharmacies and grocery shops are empty and it is difficult to buy such products.
"The situation is miserable and it is not possible to find goods," said the man. "We had to choose between dying in Syria or coming to Turkey."