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Aleppo fight a journey into unknown for rural rebels

Aug. 5, 2012 5:49 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 6, 2012 8:56 P.M.)
By: Hadeel Al Shalchi
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) -- The young rebel fighters' mission was clear: to rid an Aleppo neighborhood of Syrian army snipers who had infiltrated rebel lines on Saturday.

But before they had reached their target, a skirmish with government troops forced them to make a diversion, throwing the group into confusion. All 40 were from rural areas outside Aleppo, and none could find their way through the city streets.

"Wait, are we in the right place?" one rebel asked. "Weren't we supposed to turn at a mosque? Where's that mosque? Have we passed it?"

A few minutes passed as the men circled around, peeking behind buildings into alleyways to see if they recognized them, unsure where to go next.

"I guess we're coming back as martyrs today," one fighter joked darkly to his friend, who chuckled nervously in front of a Reuters reporter and photographer accompanying the fighters.

Outgunned in Aleppo by President Bashar Assad's forces -- who have stepped up their counter-offensive to retake Syria's biggest city -- the mainly rural fighters are also out of their element in a city of 2.5 million where relatively few local men have joined the armed revolt.

Salah al-Din, the focus of fighting in Aleppo, used to be one of its busiest and mostly heavily-populated shopping and residential districts.

Restaurants, pet shops, clothes and electronics stores -- all shuttered -- stand in tightly packed rows, creating a maze that only long-term residents can easily negotiate.

"This is a street war in the full meaning of the term," said a rebel who identified himself as Abu Zayd, as an explosion went off behind a building where he was taking cover. "We don't know who is hiding in which building, who will pop up".

Bullets and dust

Dodging sniper bullets, the fighters made their way to a small street where bullets whizzed overhead, bringing down pieces of concrete.

Artillery, mortar rounds and tank shells pounded the district, filling the street with dust which caught in the eyes and throats of the rebels, caking their clothes and uniforms.

"Burst open one of these shops!" shouted Abu Ali, a military commander from the Amr bin al-Aas brigade who was leading the operation, pointing his rifle at the green shutters of a nearby shop. A young fighter began banging the door of a building with his foot to force it open.

The men took some time to find their bearings.

"We are all fighters from rural Aleppo and we're finding it very hard to orient ourselves in these streets," Mohammed Khalifi, a deputy commander, said.

"Ideally we have one man from the district to accompany us, but usually we can't find anyone. So we have to play it by ear and deal with what the situation presents us with."

He said he didn't know the name of the street the men were fighting on, or how far it was from the main front line.

"Who is from this area? I need a man who knows these streets!" cried a rebel to his fellow fighters going from cluster to cluster of men.

Carrying a machine gun and a belt of bullets slung over his shoulder, Mustafa Hazan shrugged.

"I'm from Idlib and just came here on Saturday," he said. "I don't know why the men from Aleppo haven't come to join us and they're all depending on outsiders."

Despite the confusion, the men deployed across the street, taking up positions in elevated apartments so they could look out over army lines. Several said they had inflicted losses on their opponents.

One man ran down to say he had skipped over three buildings and discovered an army checkpoint with about 10 men.

"I shot two men and killed one," said 26-year-old Tariq Mohammed, sweating and panting from having to run back over the roof tops and scramble down buildings to get back. "The troops ran away, dragging the dead man on the road with them."

Abu Ali said he had thrown a bomb into a room inside a building that he had climbed. "There were a number of officers based in the room, and I threw two bombs inside," he said. "I believe I injured them."

Shortly after he returned, a tank shell exploded near a building where he was giving directions to his men.

With blood spurting from his foot due to a shrapnel injury, he was rushed to hospital. His men had lost their leader for the day, but they kept shooting their rifles.
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