BEIRUT — Syrian rebels said they took control of at least two important police stations in central Aleppo on Tuesday, maintaining their hold on several neighborhoods despite air assaults and shelling from government troops.
Nearly two weeks have passed since the fighting began for control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial center, and both sides seem to be digging in for an extended battle.
Residents and activists said the Syrian army was attacking from a military base on the city’s southern edge, while rebel commanders and activists said they controlled eastern sections of the city as they continued to fight for neighborhoods near the center of the city, and in Salaheddine, a large neighborhood in the southwest part of Aleppo.
The larger of the two police stations that rebels claimed to have seized Tuesday lies near the old city of Aleppo and its ancient iron gate. The second, smaller station is a few miles away, and rebels and activists described both locations as strategic because Syrian troops had been using them as bases, dividing rebel fighters in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Since the beginning of the uprising, this criminal” — a common reference among rebels for President Bashar Assad — “transformed these stations into military centers,” said Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, head of the Aleppo military council of the Free Syrian Army, the largest armed resistance group in Syria. “There are no more policemen, just security forces and thugs and snipers.”
Analysts said the Syrian police had not been generally involved in Syria’s 17-month conflict, but police stations — as fortified government institutions inside neighborhoods — have become increasingly valuable military locations. Rebels said that the Syrian army had been using jail cells to hold captured rebel fighters, while gathering troops at the stations to stage attacks or fire from the rooftops.
The stations “also represent a source of intelligence and a network for information for the regime as well as a refuge for government officials,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and an expert on the Syrian military. “Taking over a police station means denying the government a presence in the area, and controlling it.”
The battles for the stations appear to have been bloody. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain, described the largest of the two stations as a three-story building manned by dozens of officers and soldiers who were killed during a battle that lasted between seven and eight hours. Al-Okeidi said around 50 Syrian soldiers had been captured, including a colonel — a claim, like the others involving the death toll, that could not be independently verified.