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Assad praises troops

Rebel fighters seized three police stations while fighting the army for control in Aleppo.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

ALEPPO - President Bashar al-Assad told his troops on Wednesday that their battle against rebels would decide Syria's fate, but his written message gave no clues to his whereabouts two weeks after a bomb attack hit his inner circle.

In Aleppo, rebel fighters seized three police stations while fighting the army for control of a strategically important district. Explosions could be heard and helicopter gunships cruised the skies as troops tried to push the rebels out of the northern city and preserve one of Assad's main centres of power.

Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing in Damascus on July 18 killed four of his close security aides, although he has appeared in recorded clips on television. His latest remarks appeared in the military's magazine to mark armed forces day.

"The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," said Assad, whose low public profile suggests acute concern over his personal safety since the bombing in which his brother-in-law was among the dead.

In confronting "terrorist criminal gangs" - the government's usual term for the rebels - the army had proved it had "the steely resolve and conscience and that you are the trustees of the people's values," the 46-year-old president declared.

Earlier, at least 10 volleys of shells lit up the darkened sky over Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, and drowned out the Islamic call to prayer. Carloads of rebels shouting "God is great" sped off towards the fighting.

The World Food Programme said it was sending emergency food supplies to Aleppo to tackle a worsening humanitarian situation.

Syria's civil war has intensified since the July 18 bombing, with fighting engulfing Damascus and Aleppo for the first time in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad family rule.

The two cities are crucial prizes for both sides in an increasingly brutal struggle that has eluded all attempts at a diplomatic solution and risks igniting a wider conflagration.