(AP) BEIRUT - Syrian troops fired tank shells and artillery Sunday at neighborhoods in Aleppo as rebels tried to repel a government ground assault against their positions in Syria's largest city, activists said.
The bombardment was part of a government counter-offensive to retake control of districts that had fallen into rebel hands last week at the beginning of their bid to capture Aleppo, the nation's commercial hub.
Activists said the shelling was most intense in the southwestern neighborhoods of Salaheddine and parts of Saif al-Dawla, some of the first areas seized by the rebels when they started the push last week after being routed in a similar attack against the capital Damascus.
The battle for control of Aleppo, once a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad's regime, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would be a major blow to the regime's morale and a realization of the opposition's crucial and strategic goal to establish a stronghold in northern Syria.
The government pledged to continue fighting and said security agents were hunting down armed groups in several areas of Aleppo including Saleheddine, inflicting heavy losses upon the "terrorists" — the term authorities use to describe Syrian rebels.
SANA quoted an Aleppo official as saying that troops would continue until the city is "purged" of armed groups and peace and tranquility is restored to its residents.
"We are seeing some of the heaviest bombardment today, but the rebels are still holding up well," said Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed. "No ground troops have been able to enter. They are shelling from outside." He said rebels were fighting back against the attackers.
He said around 200 fighters entered the city Sunday to join about 1,000 fighters who had poured into the city in the past few days to take on the Syrian army, which had been massing forces around the city ahead of the bombardment.
He also said rebels have received "a new batch of weapons and ammunition," but declined to say from where.
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The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported heavy fighting and explosions in Aleppo Sunday. It reported intense clashes in the Bab al-Hadeed, al-Zahraa and al-Arqoub neighborhoods.
The international community has raised an outcry about a possible massacre in this city of 3 million but acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the bloodshed. The foreign minister of Russia, a powerful ally of Syria, said it was "simply unrealistic" for Damascus to cede control of Aleppo.
The rebels are estimated to control between a third and a half of the neighborhoods in this sprawling city, especially a cluster in the northeast around Sakhour neighborhood and in the southwest.
They began their attempt to wrest this key city from the government's control a week ago. About 162 people have been killed, mostly civilians, according to the Observatory. Some 19,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, the group says.