BEIRUT -- Renewed clashes and shelling were reported Saturday in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where armed rebels and government forces have been bracing for a decisive battle in the nation’s commercial hub.
Whether Saturday’s fighting signaled the start of a major government offensive to retake the city was not clear. Shelling from artillery and helicopter gunships has been ongoing for several days, the opposition says.
The opposition has said scores of government tanks are poised to be unleashed as part of the anticipated government counterattack.
Rebel forces have seized a number of districts in the city of more than 2 million. But how much of the sprawling city and its suburbs were engulfed in the fighting remained unknown.
Amateur opposition video said to be from Aleppo showed white smoke rising from residential buildings. Another video clip showed several bodies of men who appeared to be soldiers on a street where an armored personnel carrier had been disabled.
One Aleppo resident reached Saturday via Skype reported that shells were falling “continuously” and that parts of town were deserted. “There are no people in the streets,” he said.
The man said he had tried to reach the Seif Ad Dawla district, where clashes have been reported, but had to turn back because of heavy fighting. “When I went out,” he said, “I felt I was the only one living in this city.”
Government troops were said to be massing, possibly for an offensive to reassert control in the city. Thousands of civilians have reportedly fled Aleppo or moved to outlying neighborhoods away from the fighting and shelling.
Some analysts say the battle for Aleppo could be a decisive moment in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Losing Aleppo could open up much of northern Syria to opposition control.
The rebel-held Salahudin neighborhood in the city’s southwest has been a center of clashes. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, reported Saturday that at least 10 soldiers had been killed and dozens wounded during fighting there.
An amateur video posted online purports to show a rebel in Salahudin firing a truck-mounted machine gun in the sky, presumably at a government aircraft.
The official Syrian press agency reported clashes in several Aleppo neighborhoods and “heavy losses” inflicted on “terrorists,” referring to armed rebels.
Conflicting accounts of fighting and casualty figures from Aleppo could not be independently confirmed.
U.S. and other international groups have voiced fears that a bloodbath could take place in Aleppo. The United Nations has urged both sides to respect civilian lives.
On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Syria to halt is its assault on Aleppo.
-- Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Syrians carry the body of a man allegedly killed in a government bombardment of Sukari, southwest of Aleppo, during his funeral in the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo. Credit: Pierre Torres / AFP/Getty Images