BREAKING: Ground assault on Aleppo begins!

Last updated 28 July 2012 | 6:49pm

The head of the Syrian Consulate in Armenia, Huhammad Hosam, has defected from the Assad regime, according to tweets.
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UPDATED 6:40pm pst | 180 people were killed totoday by the Assad regime, including 21 childern, the Revolution Council reported [Al Arabiya Sun Jul 29, 2012 21:25 pm (GMT) ]:

Four buildings were set ablaze early in the day in Aleppo’s Salaheddin district as opposition fighters battled a long-anticipated army offensive.

“It started at 4:00 am (1:00 GMT) and eight hours later it’s still hell. This is madness,” an AFP correspondent reported on Saturday.

The much dreaded ground assault by the Assad regime with the full fiery of its mechanized army began about 8 hours ago with reports of the entry of 50 tanks into Salah Al Din and people fleeing. @BBCiPannell says "A number of FSA fighters wounded & killed. Rebels edgy"

About that same time the tweets from Aleppo yet silent as reports that the Internet and/or the mobile phone network has been cut off in Aleppo.

As this was happening, we received new reports of fresh clashes between the Syrian and Jordanian armies around the Hajaneh border crossing. A gas station was said to be on fire.

And there have been more defection. Syrian Ikhbariya TV reporter, Ola Abbas, announced her defection "from the lying arm of the Assad regime" in this video:

Damascus Bab Srigh, an evening rally in support of the cities affected | 28 July 2012

Al-Sha'ar | Aleppo | FSA soldiers surrounded by protesters - Free Syria | 28 July 2012

6:42 PM PT:

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is calling upon the international community to take steps to address the Assad regime's assault and the threat that it will use chemical weapons. From Today's Zaman we have:
Erdoğan says can’t remain spectator to looming Aleppo offensive

International steps must be taken to deal with President Bashar al-Assad's military build-up around the Syrian city of Aleppo and his government's threat to use chemical weapons, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday.

International concern was mounting on Friday over a looming massacre as Syrian troops bombarded the besieged city of Aleppo with artillery, strafed it with aircraft and pulled in major reinforcements ready to crush the outgunned opposition fighters.

The battle is one of the most important of the 17-month-old uprising. With a population of about 3 million, Aleppo is Syria's largest city and commercial hub, a key pillar of support for Assad's regime.

"There is a build-up in Aleppo and the recent statements, with respect to the use of weapons of mass destruction, are actions that we cannot remain an observer or spectator to,
" he said at a joint news conference in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"Steps need to be taken jointly within the United Nations Security Council, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League, and we must work together to try to overcome the situation," said Erdoğan. More...

Reuters has this report:

Military helicopters pound Aleppo as onslaught looms
By Erika Solomon
TAL RIFAAT, Syria | Sat Jul 28, 2012 10:24am EDT

(Reuters) - Military helicopters pounded a rebel-held district of Aleppo on Saturday and armored units positioned themselves for an onslaught that could determine the fate of Syria's biggest city, opposition sources said.

Turkey, once a friend but now a fierce critic of the Syrian government, joined growing diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, calling for international steps to deal with the military build-up.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group which collects information on the 16-month-old uprising against Assad, reported helicopter attacks on the central Salaheddine district of Aleppo and fighting elsewhere in the city.

"Helicopters are participating in clashes at the entrance of Salaheddine district and bombarding it,"
the group said in an emailed statement. "There are also violent clashes at the entrances to Sakhour district."

One opposition activist said he had seen tanks and armored carriers heading for Salaheddine.

On the approaches to Aleppo from the north many villagers were still shopping or tending their fields. But fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) were also in evidence, while a military helicopter clattered overhead in the distance.

One man in his forties, carrying his family on a motorcycle, said he was fleeing the fighting in Aleppo and heading to the town of Azaz near the Turkish border.

"We are living in a war zone," he told Reuters. "I and my relatives are just going back and back and forth, trying to stay away from the fighting. We left Aleppo when we saw smoke and helicopters firing."

On the road south from the Turkish border to Aleppo rebel soldiers had set up checkpoints bearing the sign: "This is an FSA checkpoint. May God protect you." More ...

The International Business Times has this story:

Syria Civil War: Has Aleppo Massacre Begun? [VIDEO]
President Bashar al-Assad's forces step up bombardment on Syria's largest city
July 28, 2012 11:44 AM GMT

President Bashar al-Assad's forces are conducting coordinated ground and air attacks on Aleppo, Syria's largest city, prompting fears that a massacre maybe under way. Scores of rebels belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been killed or badly wounded. Several casualties have been reported across the city as bombardment in the rebel-controlled districts has escalated.

Hovering helicopters and tanks are shelling the region. Western nations, the UN and Syria's neighbouring countries had earlier expressed concern that the Syrian regime was planning a massacre in Aleppo.

Forces loyal to Assad are reported to have moved tanks into the south-western districts of the city.

"Helicopters are participating in clashes at the entrance of Salaheddine district and bombarding it. There are also violent clashes at the entrances to Sakhour district," Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters.

Salaheddine is the central district in Aleppo. Skirmishes were also reported in several other parts of the city.

An unverified video has emerged showing the intensity of the Syrian forces' shelling.

In an orchestrated move, military aircraft were seen flying at a low altitude over the region joined by ground forces and tanks closing in on the rebels.

The armed opposition groups claim that they have retaliated by destroying several military tanks.

The Syrian regime has been mustering heavy weapons and troops in Aleppo over the last few days, in a bid to crush the rebels. Both sides feel capturing Aleppo will give them a strategic advantage. More ...

Ian Pannell of the BBC is on the ground in Aleppo and he filed this report:

Aleppo: BBC journalist on Syria army moving in on city
28 July 2012 Last updated at 04:30 ET

We came into the city last night and since first light, we have been hearing the amplification of artillery bombardment.

There have been gunfights in a number of areas and helicopters flying overhead.

We are hearing that there is a government offensive targeting Salah el-Din, which has been one of the most restive neighbourhoods - perhaps the key district - and which has been in the hands of the opposition Free Syrian Army for a number of days now.

We had heard that government troops were massing outside the city, though on this occasion we believe they are coming from an area they control inside Aleppo.

The rebels are saying that they have destroyed a number of tanks. Though this cannot be verified, there is evidence that they have been able to do that - they have rocket-propelled grenades and know how to use them to target these vehicles.

But the truth is they are outgunned and outmanned. More...

The Guardian also has a man in Aleppo and he thinks the regime is running on empty. Luke Harding filed this report yesterday:

Syrian army supply crisis has regime on brink of collapse, say defectors
General who swapped sides says regime can last 'two months at most' as troop morale sinks and petrol trucks are ambushed
Friday 27 July 2012 12.15 EDT

Bashar al-Assad's military machine is on the brink of logistical meltdown and collapse, because it lacks petrol and food, and is having problems resupplying its soldiers, according to a Syrian general who has defected to the opposition.

Much has been made of the Syrian military's supposed superiority over the opposition, but General Mohammad Al-Zobi told the Guardian: "The benzine is nearly finished. They are running out of rockets. There is scarcely any bread or water for the soldiers." More...

Al Arabia News is giving us the Russian take on Aleppo this morning:

Russia warns of looming ‘tragedy’ in Syria’s Aleppo
Sat Jul 28, 2012 13:18 pm (KSA) 10:18 am (GMT)

Russia warned Saturday that a “tragedy” was looming in Syria’s second city of Aleppo but said it was unrealistic to expect the government would stand by when armed rebels were occupying major cities.

“We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference alongside his Japanese counterpart.

“But when the armed opposition are occupying cities like Aleppo, where yet another tragedy is brewing as I understand,... it is not realistic to expect that they (the government) will accept this,” Lavrov added.

The Syrian army launched a fightback against rebels in Aleppo on Saturday, amid concern among Western governments about reprisals against the civilian population of the country’s second city.

“How can you hope that in such a situation, the government will simply reconcile itself and say ‘All right, I was wrong. Come on and topple me, change the regime’?” Lavrov asked rhetorically.

“It’s just not realistic -- not because we are holding onto this regime -- but it simply doesn’t work,” he said in the news conference in the southern city of Sochi which was broadcast live by state media. More ...

EAWorldView is also reporting on the assault on Aleppo. This morning they filed this report:

1204 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 60 deaths, including 17 in Damascus and its suburbs, 12 in Aleppo Province --- including three bodies found of people slain on Friday --- and 11 in Hama Province.

1147 GMT: Syria. Sky News Arabia reports more than 50 regime tanks have entered the Salaheddin section of Aleppo.

Claimed footage of a regime attack repelled by insurgents --- there are bodies of soldiers in the sreets and a stricken armoured vehicle:

1037 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 51 deaths so far today at the hands of security forces.

1015 GMT: Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has commented about the situation in Aleppo, "We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures. But when the armed opposition are occupying cities like Aleppo, where yet another tragedy is brewing as I understand, is not realistic to expect that they (the government) will accept this."

Lavrov continued with criticism for the "West":

Pressure must be put on everyone. Unfortunately, our Western partners prefer to do something a bit different and essentially, along with some countries neighbouring Syria, encourage, support and direct the armed fight against the regime.

The price of all this is still more blood.

The Foreign Ministry also reported that it would not cooperate with a new round of European Union sanctions against Syria, commenting through a spokesperson and a statement on its website:

We do not plan to take any part in measures carrying out European Union decisions directed against Syria. Among other things we will not consider requests and give consent to the search of ships sailing under the Russian flag, nor to the use of other restrictive measures.

0955 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report that 41 people have died at the hands of security forces today. Despite the news of regime attacks in Aleppo, only six fatalities so far are reported from the city.

0925 GMT: Syria. Reuters' report from Aleppo this morning:

More images and sounds, from distance, of shelling and gunfire:

0910 GMT: Syria. Back from a Saturday break to find a report from BBC's Ian Pannell:

From first light, the sound of a heavy artillery bombardment reverberated across this city. The rebels say tanks and armoured vehicles have started to advance towards Salah al-Din, one of the most restive neighbourhoods in Aleppo, where they have apparently met fierce resistance.

Many casualties are being reported and an emergency call has gone out to doctors to help. Pro-government forces are said to have entered another area too, and the sound of heavy skirmishing can be heard all around.

Cars and trucks packed with families are heading out to the countryside, fearing there will be a massacre in the city. Both sides are determined to control this place, but the overwhelming firepower belongs to President Assad's men, and they are prepared to use it to retake Aleppo.

Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor is also reporting from the city:

Evidence of need is everywhere. On one street, the tail fins of a 120mm mortar shell have buried themselves in the asphalt. Shrapnel smashed the windows of a car nearby and struck at least one person, who left a trail of blood splashes on the sidewalk for a full city block.

“We can’t do anything but sometimes only watch them die,” says Umm Huda, the female doctor who runs this makeshift emergency ward. “There are children, ten or three years old, they have done nothing and you see them die. They are angels.”

She says the lack of international help has been a mixed blessing.

The US “can do a lot of things; they know how to end it,” she says in between treating casualties. At the same time, the Russian and Chinese vetoes of intervention “is a good thing... we want to win, but we want it ourselves, with no help from anybody.”

0725 GMT: Syria. The Syrian Ambassador to Belarus, Farouq Taha, has announced his defection.

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Friday night, Taha said that the regime did not refrain “from threatening to attack the families and properties of the officials who want to defect". He continued, “I could only announce my defection recently since the regime practices its oppression on the inside and outside the country.....Silence is not an option anymore, but rather treason.”

Taha, who has been in Government service for 44 years with 26 as a diplomat, is the 4th Ambassador to defect.

0720 GMT: Syria. Activists are reporting a regime attack to push into the Salaheddin section of Aleppo, the area first taken by insurgents this week --- an image and sounds of shelling this morning:

0550 GMT: Syria. In another sign of the growing --- if not necessarily overt --- US Government support for the insurgency, the Treasury has given the Syrian Support Group a waiver to provide logistical and financial backing to the Free Syrian Army.

The waiver allows the SSG to put money towards FSA salaries and provisions, as well as --- according to an SSG official --- “communications equipment, satellite imagery, paying for satellite imagery, logistical support for transport, which could mean everything from buying a 4x4 to supporting someone’s travel to Turkey". Soon, there could be "intelligence support, drone support, eyes in the sky, an intelligence platform".

Articles this week in outlets like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have outlined the US Administration's involvement --- along with European partners, Arab States, and Turkey --- in covert support for the insurgency. The effort is being coordinated from Adana in Turkey, near the Syrian border, with US operations "through a middlemen" and supervision by the CIA.

0515 GMT: Syria. Having entered Friday with the expectation of widespread conflict in Aleppo, the day was a relatively quiet one --- if 795 protests and 100 deaths at the hands of security forces, according to the Local Coordination Committees, can be called "relatively quiet".

There were big rallies in Aleppo, despite shelling of some areas and news of regime reinforcements moving towards Syria's largest city, and across the country. It appears that the Assad military has conceded control of much of the north, at least for the foreseeable future, to deal with the crisis. Conversely, the insurgents have released pressure --- because they were defeated, according to regime supporters; because they made their point, according to the opposition --- on Damascus.

Loud rally in the al-Hamdania section of Aleppo in Syria on Friday night

12:44 PM PT:

From Al Jazeera:

Frances calls for immediate UN intervention in Syria
July 28, 2012 - 18:31

Francois Hollande, the French president, has called for the United Nations Security Council to authorise intervention in Syria "as quickly as possible" to pre-empt the threat of "civil war".

"The role of the countries of the Security Council is to intervene as quickly as possible," he said, specifically addressing Damascus allies Russia and China and warning that failure to do so would mean "chaos and civil war."

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