The Syrian army has renewed its heavy shelling of rebel-held areas of Aleppo, the country's commercial capital, anti-government activists have said, forcing the armed opposition to withdraw from at least one neighbourhood.
Intense bombardment rocked the neighbourhoods of Saleheddin, Hanano, Saif al-Dawla, Shaar and Shakur on Thursday, anti-government groups have said.
The army attacks are part of the government's continuing air and ground assaults on Aleppo, which is being defended by armed members of the movement to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
The battle for the city has now raged for more than two weeks.
The fighting in Aleppo has focused mainly on the neighbourhood of Salaheddin, where heavy clashes have taken place in recent days between the Free Syrian Army and government forces.
On Thursday morning, FSA commanders said that they were withdrawing from some parts of the neighbourhood, under heavy government fire.
"The FSA has withdrawn from two streets where there has been fighting in recent days," said Hossam Abu Mohammed, commander of the Dara al-Shahbaa Brigade. "The fighters are withdrawing to [nearby] Sukari district, where they are preparing a counter-attack against the army."
"A large number of civilians were killed, as were some 40 rebels," said Abu Mohammed. "Forty buildings have been flattened."
Another FSA commander in Salaheddin confirmed that the rebels are staging a tactical withdrawal.
"We will open new fronts in Saif al-Dawla and Mashhad districts," to the east of Salaheddin, said the FSA's Wassel Ayub.
Mohamed Saeed, an opposition activist in Aleppo, said that Syrian forces were using air and artillery fire to assault Salaheddin. He said that the fighting was "the worst" that Aleppo has seen since the uprising began.
Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and its commercial centre, holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 40km from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of government support during the uprising.
An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.
Also on Thursday, the Iranian foreign minister opened a conference on the Syrian crisis in Tehran, the Iranian capital, the Iranian state news agency reported.
The conference is meant to gather foreign ministers from countries who share Iran's "realistic position" on Syria, Ali Akbar Salehi said in earlier comments.
"Iran has a strong belief that the only solution to the crisis is through serious, all-encompassing national dialogue between the opposition, which has popular support, and the Syrian government to establish calm and security," Salehi said.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran is opposed to any foreign interference and military intervention in resolving the Syrian crisis. Iran supports the efforts by the UN secretary general [Ban Ki-moon] in peacefully resolving the Syrian crisis," he said.
Ali Akbar Salehi said his country was attempting to revive parts of former UN-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan's plan, notably: implementing a ceasefire, sending humanitarian aid, and laying the groundwork for national dialogue in Syria.
State media reported that the foreign ministers of Iraq, Pakistan and Zimbabwe were present at the meeting.
Salehi said that diplomats from 25 other countries, including Afghanistan, China, India, Jordan, Oman, Russia, Sudan, Tunisia and Venezuela, also attended.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|