BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad urged his armed forces Wednesday to step up the fight against rebels as the U.N. reported a significant escalation in the civil war with the military using warplanes to fire on opposition fighters in the battle for Aleppo.
Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Syria, said that international observers had witnessed warplanes firing in Syria's largest city, where intense fighting has been raging for 12 days. She said the situation in Aleppo was dire, with "heavy use of heavy weapons" including tanks, which the rebels now possess as well.
"Yesterday, for the first time, our observers saw firing from a fighter aircraft. We also now have confirmation that the opposition is in a position of having heavy weapons, including tanks," she said, adding that for civilians, there "is a shortage of food, fuel, water and gas."
Residents of Aleppo have told The Associated Press over the past week that jet fighters have been strafing rebel positions and there are numerous videos on the Internet posted by activists showing rebels commandeering regime tanks after conquering their bases.
Aleppo, a city of some 3 million, has been wracked by violence since rebels attempted to take it over and succeeded in holding several neighborhoods despite daily assaults by regime tanks, helicopters and warplanes.
On the 67th anniversary of the Syrian army's founding, Assad pushed his armed forces to redouble their efforts in the fight in a speech that was not televised but only appeared in the army's magazine and the state news agency.
"Today you are invited to increase your readiness and willingness for the armed forces to be the shield, wall and fortress of our nation," he said.
The regime has characterized the rebellion as the work of foreign terrorists, and Assad claimed "internal agents" are collaborating with them.
"Our battle is against a multi-faceted enemy with clear goals. This battle will determine the destiny of our people and the nation's past, present and future," he said.
Assad has not spoken in public since a bomb on July 18 killed four of his top security officials during a rebel assault on Damascus and has only appeared on television once. His whereabouts are unknown and it is not even clear if he is in the capital.
He was echoed by his newly appointed defense minister, Gen. Fahd al-Freij, whose predecessor was killed in the bombing. He told the army to chase after armed groups and "kill them, preserving the homeland from their evils and restoring peace and security to the country."
Syria's powerful military, which has largely held together over the course of the uprising, is vital to keeping Assad in power. The pace of defections has been rising recently, however. Neighboring Turkey reports that 28 generals have already crossed the border.
In recent weeks, the military has unleashed heavy weapons against the increasingly bold rebels who have brought the fight to the country's two largest cities. The military managed to drive the rebels out of the capital Damascus a week after their assault with fierce bombardments of neighborhoods followed by house-to-house searches.
Minor clashes with the rebels around Damascus continue, however, and in the early hours of the morning Wednesday residents of the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in the old city of Damascus reported a half-hour gun battle.
Government forces also broke up two rebel cells in the capital, killing and wounding several, according to the state news agency.
There was also ongoing fighting in several other cities, including central Homs, on Wednesday. Homs saw sharp clashes between rebels and regime forces and was bombarded by mortars, artillery and rockets, according to the activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Aleppo, the state news agency reported several victories by government forces, especially in the hotly contested rebel bastion of Salaheddine, saying dozens of "terrorists" had been killed, including some with "African" nationalities.
A high-ranking Western diplomat familiar with the intelligence assessments on Syria said earlier this week that there is a great deal of concern in the West over the flow of foreign militants into Syria to fight a jihad, or holy war, against Assad's regime.
Militants from Chechnya, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been joining the rebels in significant number, he said. They are entering by way of Iraq and Lebanon and bringing along skills gleaned from battling the Americans and Russians, according to the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such matters.
In a message appearing on online jihadist forums, Syrian militant Abu Hussam al-Shami called on Muslims to come fight a jihad, or holy war, against the regime because it had committed atrocities against its own people.
"We will not be satisfied until we turn you into ashes like those under a cooking pot," he said, addressing the regime in the nearly 10 minute video translated by the U.S.-based SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks extremist messages.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Dikusarov said a Ukrainian military plane took off from Aleppo with 138 Ukrainians, 15 Poles who were trapped by the fighting. The plane stopped over briefly in Damascus to pick up some 40 Ukrainians before heading for Kiev's Boryspil airport.
The evacuees reached Aleppo airport safely, despite attacks on the access road, said Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki. Most of those evacuated were women married to Syrian men along with their children.
Rome-based World Food Program said it was sending to Aleppo enough emergency food aid for 28,000 people. The U.N. agency is distributing rations along with its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Turkey launched a military drill just across the border from a Syrian town it claims is controlled by Kurdish rebels — a show of muscle aimed at Kurdish separatists pushing for autonomy within Turkey's borders.
The Turkish government last week said Turkish Kurdish rebels have seized control of five towns along the border in collaboration with their Syrian counterparts. Turkey alleges that the Kurdish guerrillas they are fighting have taken advantage of the strife in Syria to take refuge there.
The idea that Syria, like northern Iraq, could become a safe haven for Turkish Kurdish rebels is an anathema to Turkey's leaders, who otherwise have been very supportive to the rebels fighting Assad.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Selcan Hajaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Victor Simpson in Rome, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Anna Melnichuk in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.