Syria's Assad urges his army to step up fight

PAUL SCHEMM
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This image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Tuesday, July 31, 2012, purports to show black smoke rising from buildings in Aleppo, Syria. United Nations observers say fighter jets are firing on anti-government rebels in Aleppo. The airstrikes come after President Bashar Assad issued a rare statement today, urging his armed forces to step up the fight against the rebels. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS HANDOUT PHOTO

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad urged his armed forces Wednesday to step up the fight against rebels as the U.N. reported a significant escalation in the civil war with the military using warplanes to fire on opposition fighters in the battle for Aleppo.

Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Syria, said that international observers had witnessed warplanes firing in Syria's largest city, where intense fighting has been raging for 12 days. She said the situation in Aleppo was dire, with "heavy use of heavy weapons" including tanks, which the rebels now possess as well.

"Yesterday, for the first time, our observers saw firing from a fighter aircraft. We also now have confirmation that the opposition is in a position of having heavy weapons, including tanks," she said. "There is a shortage of food, fuel, water and gas."

Aleppo has been wracked by violence since rebels attempted to take it over and succeeded in holding several neighborhoods despite daily assaults by regime tanks, helicopters and warplanes.

Assad pushed his armed forces to redouble their efforts in the fight in his speech, which was not televised but only appeared in the army's magazine.

"Today you are invited to increase your readiness and willingness for the armed forces to be the shield, wall and fortress of our nation," he said.

The regime has characterized the rebellion as the work of foreign terrorists, and Assad claimed "internal agents" are collaborating with them.

"Our battle is against a multi-faceted enemy with clear goals. This battle will determine the destiny of our people and the nation's past, present and future," he said.

Assad has not spoken in public since a bomb on July 18 killed four of his top security officials during a rebel assault on Damascus.

Syria's powerful military, which has largely held together over the course of the uprising, is vital to keeping Assad in power. The pace of defections has been rising recently, however. Neighboring Turkey reports that 28 generals have already crossed the border.

In recent weeks, the military has unleashed heavy weapons against the increasingly bold rebels who have brought the fight to the country's two largest cities. The military managed to drive the rebels out of the capital Damascus a week after their assault with fierce bombardments of neighborhoods followed by house-to-house searches.

Minor clashes with the rebels around Damascus continue, however, and in the early hours of the morning Wednesday residents of the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in Damascus' old city reported a half-hour gun battle.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.