Aleppo, Syria (CNN) — Syrian rebels standing firm against strong government firepower in a volatile neighborhood of Aleppo Wednesday began setting up roadside bombs designed to disable regime tanks.
The locale is Salaheddine, a center of fighting between the government and Free Syrian Army rebels in Syria’s most populous city.
The struggle for Aleppo is a key fight in the Syrian conflict, which morphed into a nationwide uprising and civil war after government forces cracked down on peaceful protesters in March 2011.
Roughly 17,000 people have been killed since the fighting began, the United Nations said last month. The opposition has put the toll at more than 20,000. At least 101 people were killed across Syria Wednesday, including 22 in Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
Regime forces and rebels have been fighting for days in Aleppo and neighborhoods like Salaheddine. Syrian State TV said its armed forces killed and captured “terrorists,” including “mercenaries who are non-Syrian nationals” in the neighborhood.
Military fighter jets, helicopters and tanks unleashed an intensive bombardment on the virtually deserted area, Free Syrian Army commanders said.
Free Syrian Army fighter, Abu Ayham al-Halaby, reported deaths and injuries. The LCC said the Salaheddine Mosque was one site targeted in the shelling.
More fighters streamed into the area after rebels put out a call for reinforcements and fighters are building improvised explosive devices and placing them at strategic locations. FSA commanders hinted that rebels learned how to building the bombs from jihadis who battled American forces during the Iraq war.
The Free Syrian Army is not well equipped and its ammunition supply is adequate but abundant, commanders said. They have weapons such as AK-47s and Austrian-made automatic weapons.
But the supply lines in Aleppo, located in the northern part of the country near Turkey, are effective, and the lightly armed fighters have managed to hold off the army.
“We believe in God, in this Kalashnikov, old Kalashnikov,” an elderly fighter who calls himself Alexander said. “We can fight them and we will win because we have iman — faith — We have faith. We believe in God. They don’t believe in God.”
Across the city, the shelling is around the clock and some of the bombardment appears to be random, residents say.
Fighter jets struck the Bustan al-Qaser and Sukari neighborhoods, al-Halaby said. Helicopters hovering above Sukari opened fire and a MiG-29 dropped two bombs above Bustan al-Qaser and fired missiles on a heavily populated civilian area, he said.
Nearby suburbs also sustained heavy shelling overnight, opposition activists said, and shelling was reported in the Aleppo province towns of Atareb, Kafrtooneh and Abzamo.
The shelling has forced thousands of residents to flee their homes, and civilians trapped in the city have had to scramble for food and water. Bread has become the main staple, with each family member allowed a flat loaf a day and sold at a symbolic price. The flour is provided by the Free Syrian Army and wealthy benefactors.
Sikari, which is a rebel-held district, appears normal in spots with some shops and street vendors working, but the queue at a bakery for bread underscores the neighborhood’s misery. In that same neighborhood, residents have turned a public park into a temporary graveyard.
Displacement continues across the city. Muwafaq, whose family of seven is one of thousands to flee Salaheddine, said the “situation is terrible.”
“We don’t know where we’ll go. We’ve lost everything so we’re leaving,” he said.
The war has devastated communities. On Tuesday, the U.N.’s World Health Organization said Syria is experiencing critical shortages in medicines and pharmaceutical products and the fighting has badly affected health centers and hospitals.
And the warfare has taken its toll on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which lately has been hit by assassinations and political and military defections.
The latest defection came from Riyad Hijab, who was Syria’s prime minister for the last two months. Citing the “killing and terrorist regime” as a reason, he defected to Jordan on Wednesday.
In fact, Jordan’s King Abdullah, in an interview with CBS News, raised the specter of partition, with the creation of a state for the Alawi minority, the offshoot of Shiites who dominate the government, because the government is losing its grip. Around three-quarters of the people in the religiously and ethnically diverse country are Sunnis.
“I have a feeling that if he can’t rule greater Syria, then maybe an Alawi enclave is Plan B and that’s something that needs to be considered,” Abdullah said, referring to al-Assad. The historic Alawi region is around Latakia and Tartous on the Mediterranean coast. Many Alawites also live in and around Homs and Hama and other cities.
Diplomatic efforts so far have failed to end the 17-month-long conflict, but world powers have persisted in trying to deal with the crisis.
Iranian officials visited capitals in the region to discuss the situation and get help to free dozen of Iranians abducted by rebels in Syria over the weekend.
Iranian media initially reported that the 48 people were religious pilgrims on a visit. In a televised video later, a group of Free Syrian Army rebels claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying the captives were members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, not pilgrims.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the pilgrims included some retired members of the guards, the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported Wednesday.
“The desire to visit holy places in Syria is so strong that we cannot stop the faithful from making these pilgrimages,” Salehi said.
And, in a letter he sent to the United Nations on Tuesday, asking for its help in freeing the people, Salehi cited reports saying three of the 48 captives were killed.
At the same time, Iran, a staunch ally of Syria, also has asked Turkey to help secure the release of the captives because Turkey has tense relations with the Syrian regime and is sympathetic to the rebels.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry announced it would make “all efforts” to secure the Iranian captives’ release. However, Iran’s foreign minister appeared to have gotten a chilly reception in Ankara on Tuesday because of Turkish anger at recent comments by a senior Iranian military commander who accused Turkey of being responsible for blood spilled in Syria.
“We strongly condemn the statements full of unfounded accusations and very inappropriate threats related with our country by some Iranian officials, especially the statement by Iranian Chief of General Staff Hasan Firuzabadi published on the internet site of Iran Revolutionary Guard,” the ministry announced in a written statement Tuesday.
Tehran, meanwhile, extolled its “axis of resistance” with Syria against other world powers as Saeed Jalili, a top Iranian official, met with the Syrian president in a display of solidarity Tuesday.
During the meeting with al-Assad, Syrian state media quoted Jalili as saying that Iran will not permit “enemies” to interfere in Syria. It was the first public video of the president since last month.
Nations such as the United States, France, Britain and Turkey, as well as Arab League countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have supported Syrian rebels and the opposition. The Syrian regime has been supported by Iran and groups such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.