(CNN) — Leaders of Syrian rebel forces ordered their fighters to attack hundreds of government troops heading toward Aleppo, the country’s largest city, a Free Syrian Army official told CNN on Wednesday.
The Syrian regime withdrew about 2,000 fully equipped troops, along with their tanks and artillery, from Idlib and sent them to Aleppo, about 40 miles away, the official said.
Rebel forces have been trying to wrest control of Aleppo from government forces.
Footage streamed live by the Free Syrian Army on Wednesday afternoon appeared to show rebel forces taking control of a police station in central Aleppo.
The video shows them seizing tanks, looting the station, smashing pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and lining up members of the pro-regime Shabiha militia they have captured, although what happens to them next is not shown.
The footage casts doubt on Syrian state TV reports that government forces are sweeping the rebels from Aleppo.
As the commercial hub of Syria, Aleppo is a crucial city in the country’s 16-month conflict. If rebels eventually gain control of the city, it would mark a pivotal point in the Syrian crisis and deal a heavy blow to al-Assad’s financial ties.
Across Syria, at least 100 people, including nine children, were killed in fresh violence Wednesday, opposition activists said. The dead included 25 people in Damascus and its suburbs and 17 in Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
“There is random shelling of the eastern portion of the city as the Syrian Army is trying to force out the FSA (Free Syrian Army). They are hitting civilian homes over and over,” one activist told CNN via Skype on Tuesday.
Syrian state TV reported a crackdown on Aleppo and Qamechli and the capture of “terrorists” in Lattakia. The regime has consistently blamed the violence on armed terrorist groups.
Rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday that the discovery of 19 bodies in a Damascus neighborhood this week mirrored a pattern documented elsewhere in Syria of both regime and opposition forces carrying out unlawful killings.
“Reports that government forces and armed opposition groups deliberately and unlawfully captured and killed opponents in Syria bolster the need for all sides to commit to abiding by international humanitarian law,” the group said.
CNN’s Ivan Watson, who is inside Syria, said he had noticed that the rebels had become better armed in the past few months. While they had only shotguns at one point, they now have rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, he said.
The increased firepower has helped the rebels successfully attack armored vehicles and forced some Syrian forces to resupply by helicopter.
Watson said that in the village he was in, hundreds of rebels had loaded up with ammunition this week and headed to fight in Aleppo.
Both Aleppo and the capital city of Damascus have been al-Assad strongholds.
On Tuesday, state-run media reported that regime troops had regained control of neighborhoods in Damascus, where rebels fought al-Assad’s forces last week.
Alex Thomson, a journalist for CNN British affiliate ITN, confirmed the developments from Damascus.
“It is quite clear that the regime has just had, in Damascus, the biggest boost to its morale in 16 months of violent civil war,” Thomson wrote. “This is a comprehensive victory of the Assad regime in its own backyard and capital.”
In another entry, he recounted how, in a moment of confusion at an army checkpoint, shots were fired by regime forces at a vehicle in which he was traveling, shattering its rear windscreen.
“These are tense times in the capital and one false move or hesitation can lead in a blink to stressed out young men firing their kalashnikovs at you,” he wrote.
On a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday, U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reflected on how the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s had prompted “a new international resolve for justice, accountability, for a responsibility to protect civilians.”
The international community is now being tested in Syria, Ban said, as he appealed for united action to end the violence.
“The echoes are deafening. An accelerating slide to civil war. Growing sectarian strife. Villagers and children, butchered,” he said in an address to lawmakers.
“The United Nations is doing all that we can. But action — meaningful action — will take the concerted efforts of the international community. Without unity, there will be more bloodshed. More deadlock means more dead.”
Meanwhile, half the members of the United Nations observer mission in Syria have left the country as it starts what is set to be its final 30-day mandate, the U.N.’s chief peacekeeper, Herve Ladsous, said Wednesday in Damascus.
As a result, “the mission operates on a reduced basis, reduced in numbers, reduced in team sites in the provinces and does what it can,” Ladsous said.
A U.N. Security Council resolution passed Friday highlighted that for the body to reconsider its decision to renew the observers’ mandate for a final 30-day period, “there needs to be very specific and sustainable progress on the level of violence, which should decrease substantially, and on the use of heavy weapons,” he said.
About 150 observers remain in Syria.
Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, who has taken over the leadership of the mission, said every opportunity would be taken to “alleviate the suffering” of the Syrian people.
Turkey’s customs and trade minister earlier announced temporary restrictions on traffic at three border crossings with Syria, named as Cilvegozu, Oncupinar and Karkamis, because of security concerns.
“These gates were taken over by opposition forces, and as a result of this, out of the control of the opposition forces, with the involvement of others, some looting and damaging incidents happened,” Hayati Yazici told reporters.
Under the new measures, commercial traffic will be barred from entering or exiting Syria, he said, but Syrian citizens seeking to cross into Turkey will be unaffected.
Thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey in recent months to escape violence in their country, but the refugees generally cross from fields through the border fence, not the border gates.
In what may be a blow to the regime, the opposition Syrian National Council said Wednesday that two senior Syrian diplomats were the latest to defect.
One is the Syrian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdullatif Al Dabbagh, SNC spokesman George Sabra said.
The second is Al Dabbagh’s wife, who is also the Syrian envoy to Cyprus, Lamia Al Harriri. She defected to Qatar, SNC member Najy Tayyarah told CNN. She is also the niece of Syrian Vice President Farouq Al Sharea.
Al Dabbagh had helped a lot of Syrians in need, Tayyarah said from Istanbul.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the Western response to a bombing in Damascus on July 18 that claimed the lives of four top al-Assad officials, state news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday.
Lavrov called the statements made by American diplomats after the bombing a “direct justification of terrorism,” the news agency said.
Russia has been a friend and ally of the al-Assad regime.
The chaos in Syria took an ominous turn this week after a Syrian official discussed his country’s weapons of mass destruction.
Jihad Makdissi, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters Monday that “any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstances, no matter how the crisis would evolve.
“All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army,” Makdissi added. He further said that the “weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Russia said Syria had ratified 1925 Geneva protocols “banning the use of asphyxiating, toxic and other gases in military conditions,” and expects the country to abide by that agreement. That protocol was “entered into force” in 1928, the United Nations said.
Ban, the U.N. secretary-general, said Syria is not a party to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That’s the body of the Chemical Weapons Convention dedicated to eliminating the weapons.
Al-Assad’s regime “probably has the largest and most advanced chemical warfare program in the Arab world,” according to Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow and director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
It includes “thousands of tube and rocket artillery rounds filled with mustard-type blister agents, thousands of bombs filled with the nerve agents sarin and possibly VX, and binary-type and cluster CW warheads filled with nerve agents for all its major missile systems.
“Its CW infrastructure is believed to include several production facilities and numerous storage sites, mostly dispersed throughout the western half of the country,” Eisenstadt said.
Syria is thought to have a biological warfare research and development program but is not known to have offensive biological warfare agents, Eisenstadt told CNN.
The Syrian crisis started in March 2011, when a fierce government crackdown on protesters morphed into a nationwide uprising against the regime.
The LCC says more than 16,000 people have been killed in the conflict. The U.N. secretary-general said this week that almost 17,000 people have died.