Rebels use tank on Syrian airbase

Syrian rebels turned a captured tank against government forces and bombarded a military airbase.

Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

ALEPPO - Syrian rebels turned a captured tank against government forces on Thursday and bombarded a military airbase, a welcome boost to their firepower in the week-long battle for the country's commercial capital Aleppo.

President Bashar al-Assad's troops meanwhile pounded the strategic Salaheddine district in Aleppo itself with tank and artillery fire while rebels tried to consolidate their hold on areas they have seized.

In the capital Damascus, troops overran a suburb on Wednesday and killed at least 35 people, mostly unarmed civilians, residents and activist organisations said.

The fighting for Syria's two biggest cities highlights the country's rapid slide into full-scale civil war 17 months on from the peaceful street protests that marked the start of the anti-Assad uprising.

World powers have watched with mounting concern as diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution have faltered and violence that has already claimed an estimated 18,000 lives worsens.

The rebels' moral was boosted when they turned a government tank's gun on the Menakh airbase 35 km (25 miles) north of Aleppo, a possible staging post for reinforcements for the army's attack on Aleppo.

"We hit the airport using a tank that we captured from the Assad army. We attacked the airport a few times but we have decided to retreat at this time," a rebel fighter named Abu Ali told Reuters.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces at the airbase had used artillery and rocket launchers to bombard the town of Tel Rifaat, which lies between the airbase and Aleppo.

Reuters correspondents heard heavy weapons fire on Thursday morning from Salaheddine in southwest Aleppo, a gateway to the city of 2.5 million people that has been fought over for the past week.

Heavily armed government troops are trying to drive a force of a few thousand rebel fighters from the city in battle whose outcome could be a turning point in the conflict.

Although government forces have made concerted efforts to take Salaheddine, a full-out assault on the city as a whole has yet to take place.

Mobile phone connections have been cut since Wednesday evening, leading to speculation among residents that an increase in military action might be imminent.

Facing tanks and artillery in Salaheddine, a shattered neighbourhood that straddles a highway into the south, rebels said they planned an offensive elsewhere in the region but did not disclose their objective.

The rebels are consolidating areas they control in Aleppo, attacking police posts and minor military installations with some success. They claim to have seized three police stations this week.