“The army is advancing from west to east to cut Salaheddine in half horizontally,” an official said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity, referring to the key rebel stronghold in the city.
Wassel Ayub, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), said: “The regime forces advanced into Al-Malaab Street with tanks and armoured vehicles and fierce fighting is now taking place in the area.”
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Ahmed Zaidan, reporting from Aleppo, said “a large number of people have been killed or injured in a fierce battle near Salaheddine in which advanced Russian tanks have been used by the government forces”.
Zaidan says control of Salaheddine, and Aleppo, is “very important for both sides”.
“Aleppo is the second largest city and financial hub of Syria. We shouldn’t forget that almost 60 or 70 percent of the Syrian economy now is on a standstill because there is no life in Aleppo,” he added.
“Aleppo battle might decide the future of Syria and the future of the position of the regime.”
Clashes have also been reported in Hanano, Tareeq Al Bab and Sha’ar in the besieged city, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.
The observatory said that the clashes taking place in the streets of Salaheddine and in surrounding areas were the most fierce that the northern city has seen in the nearly 17-month uprising.
SOHR said neighbourhoods of Maysaloun, Sakhour and Tal Rifaat were under shelling by government forces.
The Syrian army has made progress but rebels have not abandoned Salaheddine, our correspondent said, adding that the FSA has shot down a plane and destroyed five tanks in Aleppo.
The army, which has been massing its troops and armour in and around Aleppo since late last month, was moving from west to east, coming from Hamdaniyeh, a district adjacent to Salaheddine, the FSA’s Ayub said.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from neighbouring Beirut, said: “It’s not just symbolic but also where most of Free Syrian Army is concentrated, and for the world it also became symbol of FSA’s major success in getting their hold on this city.”
“FSA has been bringing in its own rebels from outside Aleppo from country side e.g. Idlib, Homs because for them it’s a major battle. Salaheddine is also crucial for government, as it has been a pillar of support for the (Syrian) President (Bashar al-) Assad in the last 16 months,” she said.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Andrew Simmons, reporting from Antakya, on the Syrian-Turkish border, said people in Al Dana, near Aleppo, “are fully aware that only minutes away is the potential for massive shellfire raining down on their city.”
“They are within range of the long-distance artillery; they know that the situation could change – so that atmosphere permeates throughout the town. You you talk to people and they have the same symptoms, the same fear etched on their faces, because they are also concerned of retribution should the Syrian government forces return to where they live,” he said.
“They are trying to get by, it is extremely difficult, and they look to the Free Syrian Army for everything really. But security is not heavy on the ground, because so many of the young men have gone from the area to go to the battle for Aleppo city.
“That is the primary objective, they are aware of that, but many feel that Aleppo is the final battle but there is a long distance to go. There is a solemn feeling there really, a feeling that liberation is a long way away.”
Retired guards among Iran hostages
In other developments, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Wednesday that “retired” members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and army were among 48 Iranians taken hostage in Syria by rebels, the ISNA news agency reported.
Salehi said the former military personnel were exclusively on a religious pilgrimage to Damascus when they were seized on Saturday.
“A number of the (hostages) are retired members of the Guards and the army. Some others were from other ministries,” Salehi was quoted as telling reporters as he flew back from Turkey, which he asked for help in freeing the Iranians.
Another senior Iranian official visited Damascus on Tuesday where he met Assad.
Saeed Jalili, a senior aide to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Assad that Iran will continue to back the Syrian government.
During talks with Assad, Jalili said that what was happening in Syria was “not an internal issue”.
It is “a conflict between the axis of resistance on one hand, and the regional and global enemies of this axis on the other,” Jalili said.
On Monday, while on a visit to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, Jalili issued a veiled warning to countries backing the rebels.
“Those who believe that, by developing insecurity in the countries of the region by sending arms and exporting terrorism, they are buying security for themselves are wrong,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted him as telling Adnan Mansour, Lebanon’s foreign minister.
*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera