Syrian rebels fight for police academy near Aleppo

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BEIRUT (AP) — Rebels backed by captured tanks launched a fresh offensive on a government complex housing a police academy near the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, while the government hit back with airstrikes to try to protect the strategic installation, activists said.

If rebels capture the complex on the outskirts of Aleppo, it would mark another setback for President Bashar Assad. In recent weeks, his regime has lost control of key infrastructure in the northeast including a hydroelectric dam, a major oil field and two army bases along the road linking Aleppo with the airport to its east.

Rebels also have been hitting the heart of Damascus with occasional mortars shells or bombings, posing a stiff challenge to the regime in its seat of power.

On Saturday, opposition fighters in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour overran a military post believed to have once been the site of a partly built nuclear reactor that Israeli warplanes bombed in 2007.

A year after the strike, the U.N. nuclear watchdog determined that the destroyed building’s size and structure fit specifications of a nuclear reactor. Syria never stated the purpose of the site, known as Al-Kibar.

After the bombing, the regime carted away all the debris from the destroyed building and equipment from the two standing structures, analysts said, adding that the rebels were unlikely to have found any weapons in the abandoned complex.

There were troops in the area until this weekend. It was not clear what the site was being used for most recently.

“It’s more or less a shell because the Syrians decided to remove everything inside the buildings,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Geneva. “I don’t think there’s anything left really of any value for the rebels.”

Separately, rebels have been trying for months to storm the government complex west of Aleppo in the suburb of Khan al-Asal, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The facility also includes several smaller army outposts charged with protecting the police academy inside the compound.

The SANA state news agency said regime troops repelled the rebel attack on the police academy, inflicting heavy losses and destroying four armored vehicles and three cars fitted with machine guns. There was no word on government casualties.

Aleppo has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of Syria’s nearly 2-year-old conflict.

In July, rebels launched an offensive on the city, the country’s largest and one-time commercial capital, and quickly seized several neighborhoods. The battle has since devolved into a bloody stalemate, with heavy street fighting that has left whole districts in ruins and forced thousands to flee.

A key focus for the rebels as they try to capture the city is Aleppo’s international airport, which they have been attacking for weeks. There were no reports of fighting for the facility on Sunday, but there have been battles around a section of the highway the army has been using to transport troops and supplies to a military base within the airport complex.

On Friday, regime forces fired three missiles into a rebel-held area in eastern Aleppo, flattening several buildings and killing 37 people, according to the Observatory. It said the strike apparently involved ground-to-ground missiles. A similar attack on Tuesday in another impoverished Aleppo neighborhood killed at least 33 people, almost half of them children.

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