Syrian forces strike Aleppo as West tightens screws on Assad

Syrian forces today blitzed areas in and around the city of Aleppo, destroying a number of homes, activists said, as Western powers sought to tighten the screws on strongman Bashar al-Assad.

France voiced support for a partial no-fly zone over Syria, where the regime is intensifying its attacks from the air as it battles to stamp out rebel strongholds in Aleppo and pockets of resistance in the capital Damascus.

New envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due to meet UN chief Ban Ki-moon later today to discuss the 17-month conflict that has escalated from a peaceful uprising against Assad's rule into an increasing bloody civil war and triggered a major humanitarian crisis.

Turkish and US officials also held their first "operational planning" meeting yesterday on ways of bringing down the regime, while Italy said it is planning to host international talks in the next few days on a post-Assad Syria.

Syria's staunchest ally Iran said it will submit a proposal for ending the conflict at a Non-Aligned Movement summit next week, but gave no details.

The West has ramped up the pressure on Damascus as the fighting grinds bloodily on into its 18th month, with the United States and Britain warning Damascus of possible action if it resorts to its chemical weapons arsenal.

Activists reported heavy shelling today by Syrian forces on several districts of Aleppo, scene of the fiercest fighting since the conflict first entangled Syria's commercial and manufacturing hub a month ago.

Several houses were destroyed in the bombardment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, also reporting shelling on the town of Aazaz to the north.

Regime forces also pounded several areas in the largely rebel-held province of Idlib in the northwest, the Observatory said, while fierce fighting erupted between rebels and troops in the central province of Hama.

Both the government and opposition forces say the attacks on Aleppo province are aimed at cutting arms supply routes to the rebels in Syria's second city,  once a thriving metropolis of 2.7 million people but now largely in ruins.

Rebels claimed earlier this week to control 60 per cent of Aleppo but the regime said yesterday the army had recaptured three Christian neighbourhoods, where residents are largely pro-Assad.

Government troops have also waged ferocious onslaughts on the southern outskirts of Damascus over the past two days in what activists said was a renewed bid to crush the insurgency in the capital "once and for all".

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