Shaam News Network SNN via AP video, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Rebels on Friday pressed their broadest assault yet to drive President Bashar Assad's forces out of Syria's largest city, activists said, with fierce fighting erupting in an Aleppo neighborhood that is home to Kurds, an ethnic minority that has mostly stayed out of the civil war.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said intelligence suggests Assad has moved some of Syria's chemical weapons to better secure them. Panetta said the main sites are believed to be secure, though his comments indicated that there are lingering questions about what happened to some of the weapons.
On the diplomatic front, top representatives from Western nations and Middle East allies met Friday at the U.N. to urge Syria's fractured opposition to unite. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Friends of Syria group that the U.S. would deliver an additional $15 million in non-lethal aid and $30 million in humanitarian support, on top of more than $175 million already given to political opposition.
Diplomacy has been largely sidelined in the 18-month-old Syria conflict because a key tool — U.N. Security Council action — has been neutralized by vetoes from Assad allies Russia and China.
The military battle for control of the country has also been locked in a stalemate, most visibly in Aleppo, a northern city of 3 million. Since a rebel offensive on Aleppo two months ago, each side has controlled about half of the city and has repeatedly tried — but failed — to capture the rest. Aleppo would be a major strategic prize, giving the victor new momentum.
Late Thursday, rebels forces launched what they said would be a "decisive battle" that by Friday had spread to wide swaths of the city. "The city is witnessing one of the most violent days. All fronts are on fire," Aleppo-based activist Baraa al-Halabi said.
Heavy clashes were reported Friday, with regime troops firing tank and mortar shells, and rebels using heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, said Aleppo activist Mohammed Saeed.
Amateur video broadcast by the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera showed a group of rebel fighters, identified as a single unit by their white headbands, marching through a rubble-strewn street. Others fired assault rifles from behind barricades of cinder blocks and sandbags.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA confirmed battles in a number of Aleppo districts, reporting that dozens of rebels were killed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, put the day's death toll in the city at 23.
For the first time, rebel fighters entered one of Aleppo's Kurdish areas, amid conflicting reports about whether some of the local residents fought alongside regime troops or stayed out of the battle.
Since the outbreak of the uprising against Assad in March 2011, Kurds have been split in their loyalties, some siding with the regime while others joined opposition protests.
Syria's state TV said regime forces had help Friday from local residents, a claim also made by the Tawhid Brigade, the largest unit of rebel fighters in the city. However, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, and Saeed said Kurdish fighters withdrew from the streets when the fighting began.
Kurds are Syria's largest ethnic majority, making up at least 10 percent of the country's 23 million people. Most live in Syria's northeast, near the border with Turkey, but Aleppo and the capital Damascus also have large Kurdish-dominated neighborhoods.
Since the start of the uprising, both the Syrian government and opposition forces have reached out to the long-marginalized Kurds, whose support could potentially help tip the balance in the conflict. Many in Syria's power elite, including the Assad clan, are Alawites — followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam — while a majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Christians are another large minority.
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