Military helicopters pound Syria’s Aleppo district
Military helicopters pounded a rebel-held district of Aleppo on Saturday and armoured units positioned themselves for an onslaught that could determine the fate of Syria's biggest city.
Turkey, once a friend but now a fierce critic of the Syrian government, joined growing diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, calling for international steps to deal with the military build-up.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group which collects information on the 16-month-old uprising against Assad, reported helicopter attacks on the central Salaheddine district of Aleppo and fighting elsewhere in the city.
"Helicopters are participating in clashes at the entrance of Salaheddine district and bombarding it," the group said in an emailed statement. "There are also violent clashes at the entrances to Sakhour district."
One opposition activist said he had seen tanks and armoured carriers heading for Salaheddine.
On the approaches to Aleppo from the north many villagers were still shopping or tending their fields. But fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) were also in evidence, while a military helicopter clattered overhead in the distance.
One man in his forties, carrying his family on a motorcycle, said he was fleeing the fighting in Aleppo and heading to the town of Azaz near the Turkish border.
On the road south from the Turkish border to Aleppo rebel soldiers had set up checkpoints bearing the sign: "This is an FSA checkpoint. May God protect you."
The battle for the city of 2.5 million people is seen as a crucial test for a government that has committed major military resources to retaining control of its two main power centres, Aleppo and the capital Damascus.
While neither side has managed to gain the upper hand, the outcome of the uprising is being watched anxiously in the region and beyond, amid fears that sectarian conflict could spread to neighbouring countries.
Military experts believe that while Assad's more powerful military will overcome the rebels in Aleppo and other major cities, it risks loss of control in the countryside because the loyalty of large sections of the army is in doubt.
Three rebel fighters were killed in clashes before dawn on Saturday in Aleppo, the Observatory said. It said 160 people were reported killed in Syria on Friday, adding to an overall death toll of around 18,000 since the uprising began.
Video footage provided by the Observatory showed smoke rising over apartment blocks in the city into a hazy sky on Saturday. The sound of sporadic gunfire could be clearly heard.
Fighting was reported in other towns across Syria: Deraaa, the cradle of the revolution, Homs, the scene of some of the bloodiest combat, and Hama, where a revolt against Assad's father in the early 1980s was suppressed with thousands of deaths.
At least 10 people were killed on Saturday when Syrian security forces went into Maadameyat al-Sham near Damascus, the Observatory said.