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Syrian rebels pull back in Aleppo district

Damaged buildings and vehicles are seen after shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's district of Bustan Al Qasr, Aug. 7, 2012.

Obeida Al Naimi/REUTERS

Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the northern city of Aleppo have abandoned at least one position in a battered district where fighting has raged for days.

"We have retreated, get out of here," a lone rebel fighter yelled at Reuters journalists as they arrived on Wednesday in the Salaheddine district. Nearby checkpoints that had been manned by rebel fighters for the last week had disappeared.

A Syrian government security source told Lebanon's Al-Manar television that its forces were now in control of the district, but an opposition watchdog, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said clashes were still occurring there.

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Abu Firas, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the insurgents had left only one building in Salaheddine.

"We did not withdraw, our guys are still there and the situation is in our favour. We just left a building that we had in one of the streets, but it's not like we are retreating."

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted by Iranian media on Wednesday as saying some of the 48 Iranians kidnapped by Syrian rebels on Aug. 4 are retired soldier or members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"Some of these beloved ones were on IRGC and military pensions ... and others were from other different departments," Mr. Salehi said, according to the student news agency ISNA.

He denied they now had any military connection and said they were in Damascus for a religious pilgrimage to a Shiite shrine.

Iran has remained a staunch ally of Mr. Assad throughout the 17-month-old uprising against the Syrian leader's rule.

A Syrian rebel spokesman said on Monday that three of the kidnapped Iranians had been killed in a government air strike and the rest would be executed if the attacks did not stop.

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Damascus and Tehran have accused Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states and Turkey, all allies of Western powers, of stoking violence in Syria by supporting the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels.

A Syrian rebel group said on Wednesday it had killed a Russian general working as an adviser to Syria's ministry of defence in an attack in the western Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

The video, sent to Reuters, showed what the rebels said was a copy of Vladimir Petrovich Kochyev's identity card issued by the Syrian military. There was no immediate comment from Russia.

Moscow has given Mr. Assad firm diplomatic support. Along with China, it has vetoed three Western-backed UN Security Council resolutions aimed at intensifying pressure on the Syrian leader to step down, rather than trying to crush opposition by force.

For now the Syrian army and armed rebels remain locked in a confrontation that neither seems able to win decisively.

Rebels in Aleppo have been running low on ammunition as Mr. Assad's forces encircled Salaheddine, their stronghold in the south of Syria's biggest city this week.

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Mr. Assad has reinforced his troops in preparation for an assault to recapture rebel-held districts of Aleppo after repelling fighters from most of Damascus.

Tanks have entered parts of Salaheddine and army snipers, under cover of heavy bombardment, have deployed on rooftops, hindering rebel movements.

As Mr. Assad's forces battle for Aleppo, there has been no let-up in fighting elsewhere in Syria. More than 240 people were killed across the country on Tuesday, 40 of them in the central city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Mr. Assad has suffered several setbacks in recent weeks, the latest being the defection on Monday of prime minister Riyad Hijab. Footage uploaded on the Internet showed Mr. Hijab and his relatives in what the activists said was a safe house on his way to Jordan.

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