Syria conflict: UN says 200,000 have fled Aleppo battle

The BBC's Ian Pannell reports on food shortages in Aleppo

Some 200,000 people have fled intense fighting in Syria's second city Aleppo in the past two days, the UN has said.

UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos said others were trapped in the city and needed urgent help.

Government forces launched a ground assault on Saturday after a week of sporadic shelling and sorties by fighter jets.

The BBC's Ian Pannell, in the Aleppo area, says residents are facing food shortages and power cuts.

He says the rebels are outgunned by the army, but they are fighting an effective guerrilla war in the streets.

Fighting has focused on the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in Aleppo's south-west, where the rebels had embedded themselves.

At the scene

A hole-in-the-wall bakery had just reopened its doors after being closed for more than a day. Most food shops in the turbulent districts are now closed.

Rebel fighters tried to marshal the crowds as hundreds of hungry and increasingly desperate residents clamoured for the thin round loaves.

Suriya had finally reached the front of the queue and the middle-aged mother thrust her hand through the railings outside the bakery, grasping for the bread. Like many poor Syrians she has a large family to feed and with no fresh fruit or vegetables available this is her only chance to get food.

"A lot of poor people are suffering from a lack of food and water," she complained. "Many are going to bed hungry."

Their suffering does not seem likely to end soon. Food, water and power shortages have made life hard for residents. The ever-present danger from bombs and bullets is making it intolerable.

Syrian state television showed footage from the city and interviewed soldiers who said they had taken complete control of Salah al-Din late on Sunday.

On Monday, officials in Damascus again said they had "purged" the area.

But activists have denied that the quarter has been overrun by the army, saying rebels are still in control.

They said fighting was continuing on Monday.

They also reported heavy shelling and clashes at the Sakhur quarter on the north-east side of the city centre, where another attack by government forces appeared to be under way.

And an AFP news agency reporter said rebels had captured a checkpoint at Anadan, 5km (three miles) north-west of Aleppo, seizing government armoured vehicles.

Correspondents say that controlling the checkpoint would give the rebels a direct route between Aleppo and the Turkish border.

In other developments:

  • Syria's most senior diplomat in London, Charge d'Affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi, says he has left his post and is no longer willing to represent a regime that has "committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people", a UK Foreign Office statement says
  • The new head of the UN observer mission in Syria, Lt-Gen Babacar Gaye tells AFP he has seen heavy shelling in the city of Homs and major damage in the nearby town of Rastan
  • A Turkish official tells Reuters news agency that 12 police officers, including the chief of Latakia city's force, have fled over the border
  • The Turkish army has sent reinforcements including missile batteries to the Syrian border, state-run Anatolian news agency reports

Baroness Amos, speaking in New York, said that the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimated 200,000 people had fled the fighting in the past two days.

"It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today," she said.

"I call on all parties to the fighting to ensure that they do not target civilians and that they allow humanitarian organisations safe access."

She said many people had fled their homes to take shelter in schools and other public buildings.

Where Syrians are fleeing

Turkey: 43,387 Anxious Turks wait for endgame

Jordan: 36,824 Jordan's desert refugee camp

Lebanon: 31,596 Defiance at Lebanon frontier

Iraq: 8,445 Iraq pressurised by tribal ties

Internally displaced: One million

Source: UNHCR

Analysts say many others will have gone to nearby villages, and others will have fled across the border with Turkey.

The UN Security Council is chronically divided over Syria, with Russia blocking attempts by Western nations to ramp up pressure on Mr Assad.

France is due to take over the presidency of the Security Council this week, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has pledged to continue pushing the issue.

He called Mr Assad an "executioner" and said he would ask for a ministerial level meeting of Security Council members before the end of the week.

"We must try everything," he said on French radio, "even though Russia and China have blocked resolutions on three separate occasions."

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who is on a five day Middle East tour, has also heavily criticised the government's assault on Aleppo.

He said the attack would be "a nail in the coffin" of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Panetta will visit Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan in a bid to reinforce the view that Mr Assad must step down.

Meanwhile Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said there could be room for compromise.

In an interview with The Times newspaper, he said the positions of Russia, the US and UK were not as different as is sometimes suggested.

damascus
aleppo
Map showing camps for Syrian refugees. Total refugees: 235,368; Lebanon: 59,111; Turkey: 80,410; Jordan: 77,165; Iraq: 18,682. Source: UNHCR and Turkey, September 2012

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