BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian forces threatened Sunday to mount a "decisive battle" for Aleppo even as rebels clawed toward the city's ancient center under intense bombardment and strafing from warplanes. In the capital Damascus, militiamen appeared to step up guerrilla-like forays in central districts that were once firmly in the regime's hands.
The twin fronts reflected the rising stakes for both sides and a possible significant evolution in rebel strategies. Opposition forces appear to be shifting toward more hit-and-run strikes in Damascus and elsewhere to tie up Bashar Assad's forces and blur the lines between rebel and government-held territory.
The biggest prize of the ambush brigades so far - 48 abducted Iranians branded as spies by rebels - was put on display in a video that carried a warning that all Iranians in Syria would be "captured or killed" because of Tehran's strong backing for Assad. Iran said those captured when their bus was commandeered on Saturday were pilgrims visiting an important Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.
The abductions threaten to suck Iran deeper into Syria's civil war and the wider political brinksmanship around the region. Iran claims it has no fighting forces aiding Assad, but it has sharply amplified its criticism of countries supporting the rebels such as neighboring Turkey and Gulf states led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In further signs of the growing proxy nature of Syria's conflict, Iran was forced to reach out to Turkey and Qatar with appeals to help return the captives.
The daylight hijacking on the main airport road in Damascus also raises questions about the regime's ability to control key parts of the capital and protect the symbols of Assad's power such as ministries and government offices - already breached once by a bombing last month that killed four members of Assad's inner circle including his brother-in-law and the defense minister.
The pro-government Al Watan newspaper said the Syrian army is bracing itself for a "decisive battle" to clear Aleppo, Syria's largest city, from rebels. It gave no possible timetable and for more than a week, activists have claimed the government is gearing up for an all-out offensive on the northern commercial center - another critical battleground for Assad's regime to survive.
Government gunners pounded rebel-held areas to keep militiamen from expanding their hold on the city center, dominated by a medieval castle whose loss would be a deep symbolic blow for Assad.