ALEPPO  - The government of Bashar al-Assad declared victory on Sunday in a hard-fought battle for Syria’s capital Damascus, and pounded rebels who control parts of its largest city Aleppo.

Assad’s forces have struggled as never before to maintain their grip on the country over the past two weeks after a major rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that killed four top security officials.

Fierce fighting erupted Sunday in several districts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as violence killed at least 66 people across the strife-torn country, a watchdog said.

“There are clashes on the edges of the (southwestern) district of Salaheddin,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP, adding at least two rebel fighters were killed.

“Regime forces are also using helicopters to pound the district. Fighting is also happening in the central neighbourhood of Bab al-Hadid.”

Abdel Rahman described the situation in Aleppo as “a full-scale street war,” with fighting in the Sukari, Fardoss and Jisr al-Hajj neighbourhoods. “Regime troops have surrounded several rebel-held districts but not all of them are engaged in combat,” he said. “The role of many is simply to cut off those districts from communicating and receiving new rebel reinforcements from the nearby countryside.”  Rebels broke into a juvenile detention centre, said Abdel Rahman, “in order to set the prisoners free.”

Displaced families were having difficulty finding refuge “because nowhere is safe anymore,” he added.

Morning clashes were also reported in Zahraa, Arkub and Al-Hindrat Camp, the Observatory reported.

By the afternoon, the Observatory reported that seven people were killed in Aleppo, contributing to a nationwide death toll of 66: 25 civilians, 19 troops and 22 rebels.

In the central city of Homs, a battle broke out near the police headquarters between troops and rebels, at least one of whom was killed.

In the same city, regime forces “violently shelled” the rebel-held district of Khaldiyeh, which has been under siege for almost two months.

Near the capital, sniper fire killed a civilian in the town of Irbin, the Observatory said. In Damascus province, near Douma, a rebel fighter was shot dead.

Idlib was also the scene of heavy violence, the Observatory said, noting at least nine civilians were killed across the northwestern province.

Troops stormed three villages in the central province of Hama, an activist told AFP via Skype.

“They shelled the village of Oqairbiyat, and detained a large number of people in Oweineh village,” said the activist, who identified himself as Abu Ghazi.

“Today I tell you, Syria is stronger... In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed,” Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said on a visit to Iran, Assad’s main ally in a region where other neighbours have forsaken him. So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail.”

On Saturday, violence killed 168 people — 94 civilians, 33 rebels and 41 soldiers, the Observatory said.

The fighting in Aleppo follows a July 18 bomb attack that killed four top security officials including Assad’s defense minister, intelligence chief and powerful brother-in-law.

More than 20,000 people have died in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011, according to the watchdog. It is not possible to check casualty tolls independently in Syria. The United Nations has an observer mission in the country but has stopped giving an overall death toll. Peace envoy Kofi Annan urged both sides to hold back, saying only a political solution could end a conflict that rights activists say has killed more than 20,000 people since the uprising erupted in March 2011.

The conflict has also seen tens of thousands of people flee to Syria’s neighbours, and Jordan announced the opening of its first official refugee camp. Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, who opened the Zaatari camp for up to 120,000 refugees, said Jordan is now hosting more than 142,000 Syrians, around 36,000 of whom are UN-registered.

In Tehran, Muallem vowed regime forces would crush the rebels in Aleppo.

“We believe that all the anti-Syrian forces have gathered in Aleppo to fight the government... and they will definitely be defeated,” he told a joint news conference with Tehran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

Muallem also met President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who to

ld him that he hoped Syria’s government would “manage to rapidly restore security and stability in the country,” according to ISNA news agency.

As the rebels faced the superior firepower of Assad’s regime, SNC chief Abdel Basset Sayda called on foreign governments to provide them with heavy weapons.

“We want weapons that would stop tanks and jet fighters,” Sayda said after talks in Abu Dhabi.

UN-Arab League envoy Annan, who brokered an April 12 ceasefire that never took hold, issued a renewed call for a political settlement.

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