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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Rumour and Reality in Aleppo

Aftermath of the explosion in the Syrian State TV building this morning

See also Syria Snap Analysis: What the Prime Minister's Defection Might Say About State of the Conflict
Egypt Analysis: "Country Will Only Come to Life When Officers' Republic Ceases to Exist"
Syria Feature: Finding a Hip-Hop Voice Amid the Conflict
Sunday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Planning for Life After Assad

2055 GMT: Syria. Fares Mohamed, who is associated with the Local Coordinating Committees, has sent us a message that Zabadani, northwest of Damascus (map), has been heavily shelled today. According to Mohamed, 2/3rds of the population has fled, the rest are trapped, the humanitarian situation is growing desperate, and the shells fall every day.

Still, even for a population used to shelling, the videos posted today from neighboring areas show an intense barrage.

2044 GMT: Syria. According to the LCC, 150 people have been killed today by Assad forces:

54 martyrs were reported in Aleppo, 20 of them unidentified; 30 in Damascus and its Suburbs; 21 in Idlib, among them 13 due to shelling of Ariha; 15 in Deir Ezzor; 12 in Hama; 12 in Homs; 4 in Daraa; 1 in Raqqa and 1 in Banyas.

Again, that number is potentially a mix of civilians and insurgents, and it does not include casualties in the Syrian regime.

2035 GMT: Syria. Jenan Moussa, reporter for Arabic Al Aan TV, is inside Syria - and she's learning first hand just how dangerous that country can be:

She's sent an additional tweet about a minute ago.

1835 GMT: Syria. With battles raging in Deir Ez Zor and al Bukamal, the Kurds advancing in Qamishli, and the Free Syrian Army generally on the march in northeastern Syria, the last thing the Syrian regime needs is a big defection in Hassakah (map). The LCC reports:

Head of Najda Police Branch and 40 members have defected and joined the Free Syrian Army.

1557 GMT: Syria. Al-Akhbar provides more details about the fate of 48 Iranians detained by insurgents in Damascus, men whom the Iranian government says are pilgrims but the insurgents say are Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers:

Moutassam al-Ahmad, spokesman for the kidnappers, said three of the pilgrims had been killed in the bombing of the area, but this could not be independently verified.

He threatened to kill the remaining 45 if the military stop their attack.

"We will kill the rest if the army does not stop its assault. They have one hour."

1131 GMT: Syria. The Guardian's Saeed Kamali Dehghan has an important, and unconfirmed, claim from the FSA:

1442 GMT: Syria. The LCCS reports that 84 people have been killed by regime forces so far today:

30 martyrs were reported in Aleppo; including 20 unidentified, 20 in Damascus and its Suburbs (Harran Al-Awameed, Mouadamyeh, Harasta, Beit Sahm), 12 in Deir Ezzor, 11 in Hama, 8 in Homs, 1 in Raqqa, 1 in Idlib, 1 in Banyas.

The report does not specifically break down those numbers between civilians and insurgents. Furthermore, the LCC does not report regime loses, nor does Syrian state media.

1427 GMT: Syria. The Free Syrian Army began their capture of Aleppo 16 days ago. Within hours of the start of that process, there were already speculations that the military would quickly respond. Then, there were reports that on the 6th and 7th day there would be a major offensive. There was, and it failed. Now, the regime appears to be readying a far larger force to levy against the FSA in Syria's largest city. Even the FSA commanders in Aleppo sound dire, as if there is a real possibility that they will be overrun soon.

And yet, there are more signs that the FSA is winning the battle. Earlier, the FSA commander in Aleppo said that his fighters had captured 2 more checkpoints in the disputed Salah el Dine district (see the map, and update 1206). Now, The Guardian finds evidence that the FSA has destroyed a tank and a BMP armored vehicle in the Hanano district (map):

Maybe the "final assault" on the city is imminent - it certainly feels that way. But if the Assad regime loses, it will have lost a battle where it has thrown the full fury of its military at 6000 insurgents. If the military does retake the city, one has to wonder about the scale of the devastation, both to Assad's military and the the population and infrastructure of Syria's most economically important city.

1416 GMT: Syria. Sky's Stewart Ramsey is in Aleppo:

1401 GMT: Syria. Aleppo is being bombed, and straffed, by air craft today. Guardian reports that bombs have fallen on the Sakhour district (map), where the LCC posts this video of a 3-story building collapse:

Note - this may be a separate building than the one that collapsed in the Ard al Hamra district (update 1342).

1349 GMT: Syria. After a bomb has gone off in the state media building in Damascus, the Syrian government has been quick to assign blame - sort of:

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi has blamed Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel for Monday's bomb explosion at the state-run TV and radio building in Damascus. Al-Zoubi stated that he knew who the powers behind the explosion were, adding, “They have shown their cowardice with this attack.”

“We know which states politically and financially support these attacks. It can be Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Mossad, it does not matter,” said al-Zoubi.

1342 GMT: Syria. An activist reports that an area in northwest Aleppo, Ard al Hamra (map), has been heavily shelled, and some buildings have collapsed:

An activist on Twitter gives this perspective - "Imagine that you're sitting at home in NEw York city, and Obama started shelling your home."

1321 GMT: Syria. A dramatic image of an airstrike on Talbiseh in Homs Province today:

1224 GMT: Saudi Arabia. Protests continued in the Eastern Province last night, with activists sharing a video reportedly showing the demonstration on Tarout Island.

The protest condemned the klling of 18-year old Hussain Yousef al-Qallaf, allegedly shot in the chest by security officers on Friday. A policeman, Hussein Zabani, was also killed in the clashes.

The presence of Bahrain flags and February 14th iconography at last night's protest are notable, suggesting a growing sense of shared purpose between protesters in both countries.

1206 GMT: Syria. Abdul Gabbar Kaidi, the commander of the Free Syrian Army forces in Aleppo, has spoken with The Guardian's Mona Mahmoud via Skype:

The Free Syrian Army are in control of 50% of the neighbourhoods in Aleppo. Other districts which are not liberated yet are undergoing heavy fighting right now....

Salaheddin district is completely destroyed. Our men are still there, but it is not under rebel control. We were able to attack two checkpoints in the area.

The district is full of the Syrian army's tanks and the war planes are still targeting the district. FSA are targeting all the police stations in Aleppo now. The city is under an onslaught by the regime for its support of the FSA and military reinforcements keep arriving in Aleppo. We don't know how many people have been killed.

Kaidi also characterized the FSA withdrawal from Damascus as a "mistake," though the FSA commander in Damascus disagrees.

1140 GMT: Syria. We have now posted James Miller's snap analysis in a separate entry, "What the Prime Minister's Defection Might Say About State of the Conflict".

1133 GMT: Syria. Al Jazeera English has interviewed Muhammad el-Etri, a spokesperson for defected Prime Minister Riad Hijab. Below is a partial transcript:

"I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution. I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution," Hijab said in a statement read in his name by spokesman Muhammad el-Etri.

"[Hijab] was given two options: to either take the office of prime minister or be killed. He had a third option in mind: to plan his own defection in order to direct a blow to the regime from within and today he is declaring his defection and I believe he is the highest ranking official in Syria [to do so] ... it is a one of a kind [defection] and it will have grave repercussions on the regime and significant implications after the departure of the regime and [for] the success of the revolution.

"Today a high ranking official like the prime minister has defected ... and now you who are of a lower rankhave no excuse to remain loyal to the regime. The prime minister who was under tight security and scrutiny has defected. and any other official now has no excuse not to defect."

1123 GMT: Syria. Concerns have been expressed about conditions at the first camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees.

About 2,600 refugees are in Al Zaatri --- some have they are appalled by a lack of basic necessities and "horrendous" conditions at the camp, run by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the Jordan Hashemite Charity organisation. They claim bathing water is scarce and the dust is causing breathing problems for children.

Al Jazeera's Nisreen El-Shamayleh reports:

1112 GMT: Bahrain. Activists are reporting that 61-year-old hospital worker Younis Ashoori, held since March 2011, has been freed today.

Ashoori, accused of providing medical supplies to protesters at the outset of the challenge to the regime, was formally sentenced to one year in prison, meaning he could be released because of time served.

See also Bahrain 1st-Hand Special: The Coupled Suffering of Younis and Amina Ashoori
Bahrain Opinion: Why Younis Ashoori's Imprisonment Points to Repression Rather than Reform

1103 GMT: Syria. More significant news (still unconfirmed, but looking more reliable by the minute) that the defections go beyond Prime Minister Riad Hijab:

The Guardian notes that at least 2 of those defections have been reported by Al Jazeera - again, still unconfirmed. They also report that the Finance Minister may have been arrested before he had a chance to defect, citing unconfirmed reports from Al Arabiya.

Meanwhile, Hassan Hassan notes that, according to Hijab's spokesman, where much of this information appears to be originating, Hijab's defection has been planned for months - perhaps even before he was appointed as Prime Minister:

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started this morning.

1035 GMT: Syria. Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid reports on Syrian Kurds who have fled to Iraq:

1030 GMT: Syria. The opposition Syrian National Council and a Jordanian Government official are both saying that Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has defected and is now with his family to Jordan.

1020 GMT: Syria. A 31st brigadier general has defected and fled to Turkey, Anatolia news agency is reporting.

The general, accompanied by five high-ranking officers and more than 30 troops, was among 400 refugees who crossed the border.

1000 GMT: Syria. Minister of Local Administration Omar Ghalawanji has been appointed to lead a temporary caretaker Government after the dismissal of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.

Meanwhile, there are growing indications that Hijab has defected and gone to Jordan. The opposition Syrian National Council has welcomed Hijab's departure from office.

Activist "The 47th" claims two other Ministers have also quit and fled Syria:

0948 GMT: Syria. In Sunday's Live Coverage, I noted that the US Treasury has granted a sanctions waiver so American citizens can support insurgents through contributions to the Syrian Support Group.

I incorrectly stated that "leaders" of the SSG included Mazen Asbahi, connected with the Obama Presidential campaign in 2008 --- he is in fact the legal counsel for the Group. I also incorrectly linked Jamal Said to the organisation.

0937 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 44 deaths at the hands of security forces so far today, including 30 killed in Aleppo Province.

0930 GMT: Syria. State TV is reporting the dismissal of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.

Hijab, the former Minister of Agriculture, was appointed in June.

0921 GMT: Syria. In his latest report from Aleppo, Martin Chulov of The Guardian reports tank fire and bombing by a jet early this morning, as regime troops moved on the city from the south and west.

Chulov estimated that insurgents occupy about 60% of Syria's largest city, but said this is tenuous as they cannot hold all that territory in the face of a sustained attack. He said they have 20 "quite primitive" surface-to-air missiles and have captured up to nine tanks.

Chulov explained that the insurgents are trying to win over residents by organising local services. While he has not seen foreign fighters, the units all said they have been approached and offered assistance by outside groups in recent weeks.

The journalist assessed:

It is clear that the rebel forces have put more effort into consolidating the city than they did into consolidating their gains in Damascus. There are around 6,000 rebels on the ground here and numbers continue to flow in as they prepare to meet the regime advance. They are going to fight to the death. They do realise that this is an extremely pivotal battle in the whole Syrian uprising, and it could make or break their cause...the stakes are higher ... if they did leg it this time it would be difficult for them to find a way back. Aleppo is a make or break battle ... I don't think they can afford to cut and run this time.

0859 GMT: Yemen. The Aden refinery has resumed production after a nine-month halt because of attacks on the country's main oil pipeline.

Two shipments of crude oil from the Ras Isa oil terminal on the Red Sea coast have arrived in Aden, enabling the refinery to pump crude at a reduced rate of 60,000 barrels per day.

The refinery has a capacity of 150,0000 bpd.

0852 GMT: Turkey. An overnight explosion on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries about a quarter of Iraqi crude exports, has halted supplies, Turkish Energy Ministry officials have said.

The blast occurred in Mardin Province, north of Turkey's border with Syria. Repairs are expected to take 10 days.

Firat News Agency, close to the Turkey Kurdish insurgency PKK, said the group carried out the attack.

0828 GMT: Libya. Unknown assailants attacked a Red Cross compound with grenades and rockets in Misurata on Sunday, forcing the organisation to suspend its work there and in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The assault was the fifth in less than three months against the Red Cross. There were no casualties, but damage was extensive.

“Given the circumstances, we are forced to announce, with considerable regret, that we will be suspending all our activities in Misrata and Benghazi and that our delegates in those cities will be temporarily relocated,” said Ishfaq Muhamed Khan, the head of the Red Cross delegation in Libya.

Libya's interim authorities have said they will hand over power to a newly-elected congress on Wednesday.

0755 GMT: Syria. Amidst the rumours, Martin Chulov of The Guardian offers a first-hand report:

Aleppo is now undeniably a city at war. Crippling petrol shortages have reduced traffic by around 90%; festering garbage bags are now piled so high that they resemble road blocks; and the few people who brave the city's foreboding streets do so with one eye to the ground and the other tilted towards the ever-present circling attack helicopters.

The rigid order that has helped make this city a tenant of regime power for more than four decades is no more --- for now. Most police stations have been overrun, and their vehicles are now being used to ferry fighters to one of two front lines – a small enclave called Sarhour near the centre of the city.

The hospital in the east of the city, which was commandeered by regime forces until last week, is now in rebel hands. So, too, is part of the central city near the citadel, which has towered above this ancient settlement throughout the ages and appeared resolute under floodlights as fierce fighting raged nearby on Saturday night.

In the Salahedin district in the city's south-west, where it all began in late July, there has been no letup in daily battles which have reduced large parts of the suburb to a crumbling wasteland. All 30,000 or so residents have left. Only guerilla fighters remain here. Even the canaries have died.

0740 GMT: Syria. State TV is reporting that a bomb has exploded on the third floor of its building in Damascus.

Minister of Information Omran al-Zoebi, said several people suffered minor injuries.

0735 GMT: Syria. The town of Zabadani, in the southwest near the Lebanese border, is reportedly under sustained regime shelling this morning:

0625 GMT: Bahrain. A photograph of Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, being taken in handcuffs to an appeals court hearing on Sunday --- the court delayed its verdict on Rajab's three-month sentence, imposed for Twitter messages allegedly insulting the Prime Minister --- until 12 August:

0525 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi has vowed that Egyptian forces will respond after a raid by gunmen in the Sinai near the Israeli border killed at least 16 guards:

I have given clear orders to all of our security forces, the armed forces as well as the interior police, to move swiftly in capturing those behind this vicious attack.

This incident will not go lightly. The security forces will implement entire control over all of these areas within Sinai and will ensure they are controlling it. Those behind the attacks will pay a high price as well as those who have been co-operating with those attackers, be it those inside or anywhere in Egypt.

The Israeli military said five of the attackers, who attempted to enter Israel through the Karem Abu Salem crossing in north Sinai during the raid, were killed. It claimed the assault was part of a plot to abduct an Israeli soldier.

It is still who is behind the attack --- Egyptian state television referred only to "armed foreign fighters".

0515 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria report that 125 people were killed by security forces on Sunday, including 59 in Damascus and its suburbs.

The LCCS focuses on documentation of civilian casualties, so it is unclear how many insurgents were slain. The regime has stopped provided figures on deaths among its forces.

0455 GMT: Syria. We begin with a curious division between rumour and reality over the situation in Aleppo, the country's largest city. 

For days, mainstream media have been promising an overwhelming regime attack to force insurgents from their positions, now held for two weeks, but have offered little support. The BBC, for example, was trumpeting yesterday that "more than 20,000 Syrian troops are massed around Aleppo", based on no more than vague "military sources".

Syrian news agency SANA is saying little about the conflict beyond "the armed forces in Aleppo on Sunday continued chasing down fleeing members of the Gulf and Turkish terrorist militias in a number of neighborhoods in the city". However, the pro-regime Al-Watan has promised a "decisive battle", and some activists have been warning of an impending assault.

The reality has been far different so far. Footage over the weekend testified to insurgent control of sections of the city, with no immediate prospect that they would withdraw or be forced out. Instead, the video that emerged showed that, despite regime shelling, the Free Syrian Army taking the fight to President Assad's units in some areas --- the headline battle was a Saturday clash in which insurgents tried to take the radio and TV station. 

Meanwhile, in the areas around Aleppo, it is the Free Syrian Army which has been carrying out raids. Al Jazeera English's Jenan Moussa, in a series of Twitter messages, offered one overnight example:

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