BEIRUT (AFP/Reuters) - The Syrian government warplanes pounded rebel-held districts of Shaar and Sakhur in the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, a watchdog said.

“Fighter jets are being used to pound Shaar and Sakhur,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP. Earlier, clashes broke out between troops and rebels in the districts of Ansari, Hamdaniyeh and Sukari in Aleppo, scene of heavy fighting since July 20, the Observatory said, adding at least 44 people were killed across Syria on Sunday. Of those killed, 28 were civilians, 10 were soldiers and six were rebel fighters.

The Syrian army pounded rebel positions in second city Aleppo Sunday ahead of a threatened ground assault after boasting its capture of the last rebel-held district of the capital.

Iran, on Sunday, warned against foreign intervention in Syria and said the conflict there could engulf Israel. Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani accused the US and regional countries he did not name of providing military support to rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran. “The fire that has been ignited in Syria will take the fearful (Israelis) with it,” Larijani said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Iran also appealed for help from governments with ties to the Syrian opposition in securing the release of 48 of its nationals seized from a bus in Damascus as an Arabic news channel aired footage it said was of the Iranians in the hands of rebel captors who charged that their hostages were Revolutionary Guards.

The opposition Syrian National Council charged that the army’s bombardment of the rebels was hitting key public institutions in the commercial capital, some of historical significance. “After failing to subdue (rebel forces) in Aleppo...the Syrian regime’s gangs have started to target government institutions and buildings,” the exiled opposition group said. “Some of them have historical and archaeological value.” Aleppo preserves a raft of historical sites, including its renowned 13th century citadel. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation named the Ancient City a World Heritage Site in 1986. In the latest reported high-level defection, General Muhammed Ahmed Faris, a military aviator who became the first Syrian in space, fled to Turkey on Sunday, the Turkish news agency Anatolia reported.

A British photographer who was held hostage in Syria for a week said on Sunday that his captors were international ‘jihadists’ who included several Britons. Writing in the Sunday Times, Photographer John Cantile  said he was held in a camp by some 30 ‘militants’ from Britain, Pakistan and Russia’s volatile republic of Chechnya.