The United Nations reported on Sunday that 200,000 people have fled the Syrian city of Aleppo in two days, as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces step up their assault to maintain a grip on the country after a major rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that killed four top security officials.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said an unknown number of people are trapped in the city and appealed for safe access to Aleppo for aid groups.
Assad’s forces have succeeded in re-imposing their grip on the capital after a punishing battle, but rebels are still in control of sections of Aleppo, clashing with reinforced army troops for several days.
“Today I tell you, Syria is stronger... In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed,” Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said on a visit to Iran, Assad’s main ally in a region where other neighbors have forsaken him.
“So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail.”
Rebel fighters were clearly in control of parts of Aleppo, where Reuters journalists saw neighborhoods dotted with Free Syrian Army checkpoints flying black and white Islamist banners.
Helicopter gunships hovered over the city shortly after dawn and the thud of artillery boomed across neighborhoods.
Rebel fighters, patrolling opposition districts in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, said they were holding off Assad’s forces in the south-western Aleppo district of Salaheddine, where clashes have gone on for days.
Opposition activists also reported fighting in other rebel-held districts of Aleppo, in what could herald the start of a decisive phase in the battle for Syria’s commercial hub, after the army sent tank columns and troop reinforcements last week.
Cars entering one Aleppo district came under fire from snipers and a Reuters photographer saw three bodies lying in the street. Unable to move them to hospital for fear of shelling, residents had placed frozen water bottles on two of the corpses to slow their decomposition in the baking heat.
Other rebel-held areas visited by Reuters were empty of residents. Fighters were basing themselves in houses - some clearly abandoned in a hurry, with food still in the fridges.
A burnt out tank lay in the street, while nearby another one had been captured intact and covered in tarpaulin.
In a largely empty street, flanked by closed shops and run-down buildings, women clad in long black abaya cloaks walked with children next to walls daubed with rebel graffiti - “Freedom,” “Free Syrian Army” and “Down with Bashar.”
Rubbish lay uncollected. In one street families were packing vans full of mattresses in apparent preparation to flee.
Near the center of town, most shops were shuttered, some with the word “Strike” painted over them. The only shop doing business was a bakery selling subsidized bread, where the queue stretched around the block. Burnt cars could be seen in many streets, some with the word “shabbiha” marked on them - a reference to pro-Assad militiamen.
Assad’s ruling structure draws strongly on his Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, while his opposition is drawn largely from the Sunni Muslim majority, backed by Sunni leaders who rule nearly all other Arab states.
That has raised fears that the 16-month-old conflict could spread across the wider Middle East, where a sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites has been at the root of violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.