An estimated 200,000 people fled Syria’s most populous city of Aleppo over the weekend the UN has said, as rebels and government forces gave differing reports about who held sway in Aleppo after two days of fierce clashes.
Heavy shelling continued early Monday morning in several areas of the northern city.
“Complete control of Salaheddine has been (won back) from those mercenary gunmen,” an unnamed military officer told Syrian state television on Sunday. “In a few days safety and security will return to the city of Aleppo.”
Syrian troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, launched on Saturday a massive assault on the southwestern neighbourhood of Salaheddin, where rebel fighters had been concentrated after seizing much of the city on July 20.
Both sides claimed victories in the massive assault, but the ongoing fighting makes it difficult to independently verify the situation.
France, which will take over the UN Security Council’s rotating presidency from August 1st, will call for an emergency meeting on the rising violence in Syria, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on Monday.
In a statement to the press, UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos said she was extremely concerned by the impact of shelling and use of heavy weapons on residents of Aleppo.
IIn her statement, Amos said that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimate that around 200,000 people have fled the fighting in Aleppo – a city of 2.5 million – in the past two days.
“It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today,” Amos said from New York. “Many people have sought temporary shelter in schools and other public buildings in safer areas.”
She also noted that the security situation in cities and along main transport routes has made it very difficult for humanitarian agencies to reach displaced families in Aleppo and other areas.
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Reuters reported that rebel-held areas of Aleppo were nearly deserted by residents before the worst of the fighting.
Most shops in the city’s centre were shuttered, some with “Strike” painted over them. The only shop doing business on Sunday was a bakery selling subsidised bread, where the queue stretched around the block, Reuters reported.
‘Nail in the coffin’
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has been fighting opposition forces for the past 16 months, has committed huge military resources to Aleppo after losing control of outlying rural areas and some border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.
On Sunday, officials also claimed security forces had won the battle to regain control of the capital of Damascus.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said the rebels “will definitely be defeated” as he made a surprise visit to key ally Iran.
“Today I tell you, Syria is stronger … In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed,” Moualem said during a joint news conference with Tehran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Sunday. “So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail.”
However, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said the battle of Aleppo could prove instrumental in Assad’s downfall.
“It’s pretty clear that Aleppo is another tragic example of the kind of indiscriminate violence that the Assad regime has committed against its own people,” Panetta told reporters at the start of a week long tour of the Middle East and North Africa.
“And in many ways, if they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think ultimately it will be a nail in Assad’s coffin,” he said.
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, has issued a plea for weapons and arms from foreign powers.
Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the opposition Free Syrian Army commander for Aleppo also urged the international community to provide it with aerial support. “We ask the West for a no-fly zone” in order to prevent aerial operations by Assad’s forces, told Agence France Press.
Rights activists say the conflict has killed more than 20,000 people since the uprising erupted in March 2011.