By BEN HUBBARD, Associated Press
ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Entire neighborhoods of Syria's largest city bear battle scars: buildings toppled by government shells, charred tanks blown up by rebels and trash-strewn no-man's lands where neither side has full control after nearly a month of deadly street battles.
Ruin and tragedy can come in an instant. On Friday, a government fighter jet blasted the top three floors of a five-story apartment building, killing a mother, father and their three boys. Buried in the rubble was a newlywed couple who moved in on their wedding night two months ago.
Rebel fighters crawled through collapsed debris and punched holes in walls while searching the building for Mohammed Ezzo, his wife Ola, and anyone else that might be there. Across the street, the groom's father gazed at the building and wailed into his hands.
"The top floor and the floor below it and the floor below that, they all fell on top of them!" cried Munir Ezzo, 70.
The destruction, witnessed by The Associated Press during a visit to the city Friday, have transformed Aleppo, a city of around 4 million that for much of Syria's 17-month-old conflict, was considered a bastion of support for the regime of President Bashar Assad. Tens of thousands — as many as 200,000 by one U.N. estimate — have fled the city.
Assad's forces are turning to attack helicopters and fighter jets to dislodge rebels who have held out through weeks of fighting and clash daily with government troops. Rebels moved into the city last month after pushing the army from most towns between the city and the Turkish border to the north, "liberating" neighborhoods from the city's northwest to its southwest corner, many of them largely Sunni Muslim districts that support the uprising.
Rebels now claim to hold more than half of the city. But very few fighters were seen in a number of opposition neighborhoods Friday, indicating that rebel "control" is tenuous at best. The army still holds much of the city's core and northwest, and its helicopters and fighter jets control the skies, forcing residents to avoid open areas or stay home.
Friday's fighting centered in the city's southwest corner and near its airport, some 15 kilometers (nine miles) southeast of the city's historic center. Syria's state news agency said that "armed terrorist groups" — regime shorthand for the rebels — had been pushed from both sides of the airport. The report did not specify whether it meant the international airport or the adjacent military airfield.
Several neighborhoods feel empty, even for a weekend day of Friday during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Pickup trucks piled high with mattresses, washing machines and bags of clothing plied a highway north of the city as more families fled, either for safer villages or the Turkish border, 40 kilometers (24 miles) away. In most places, few shops are open. Just one barber shop was open for business on one main street; the rest of the block's stores had their metal shutters down.
"Those who are still here are those with no money to pay their way out and little food to take with them," said Mahmoud Bakkour, who sat with a dozen other rebels at a plastic table under a highway overpass in the Shaar neighborhood. "They have put their trust in God."
Bakkour boasted that rebel control was solid, putting the fight in the Islamic terms common among Aleppo's fighters.
"We are fighting the world with the words, 'There is no god but God,'" he said, citing the Muslim declaration of faith.
Under his breath, another fighter added, "We have very little ammunition."
Bakkour's men face few direct challenges on the ground, but can do nothing to protect the area from government air and artillery strikes.
The day before, an artillery shell exploded, spraying crowds of people waiting in line at the Qadi Askar bakery with shrapnel. Some 35 were killed and more than 50 were wounded, medics said.
Nevertheless, customers were back Friday, forming lines more than 100 meters (yards) long at each of the bakery's windows. Hussein Araj, 34, said he'd been waiting with his two daughters, aged 6 and 9, for more than an hour. Like many others, he'd come from other neighborhoods because his local bakery had closed, lacking supplies.