Syrian troops pound Aleppo

A showdown between government troops and opposition forces in Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo, has begun as soldiers bombarded the city with artillery.

Fighting in country's commercial hub has killed 145 in last 6 days, activists say

Syrian people leave Aleppo's city centre after shelling by Syrian government forces in the restive northern city late on Thursday. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian troops bombarded the besieged city of Aleppo, the country's commercial hub, in what many observers expect is a leadup to a full-on attack designed to crush the outgunned rebels.

Government reinforcements were amassing, as the city was reportedly attacked with artillery and strafed by aircraft.

The battle is one of the most important of the 17-month-old uprising. With a population of about three million, Aleppo is Syria's largest city and a key pillar of support for President Bashar Assad's regime.

The rebels controlled several neighbourhoods but were facing reports of troops and tanks massing outside the city. The nonstop fighting in Aleppo has already claimed the lives of at least 145 rebels and civilians in the last six days, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada was closely monitoring the mobilization of Assad's troops and called on members of the UN Security Council to condemn Syria's actions.

"Canada is horrified by reports of helicopter gunships opening fire on civilians and that the army has massed troops on the city’s borders in preparation for further assaults on its own citizens," he said in a release.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said reports are coming out of the capital, Damascus, of extra-judicial killings and shootings of civilians during fighting in that city's suburbs. Expressing deep alarm at the situation, Pillay said the report "bodes ill for the people" of Aleppo."

Pillay said she believes President Assad's regime and opposition forces are both committing crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Pillay has been following the conflict between regime troops and opposition forces.

"I have been receiving as yet unconfirmed reports of atrocities, including extra-judicial killings and shooting of civilians by snipers, that took place during the recent fighting in various suburbs of Damascus," Pillay said.

"And it goes without saying that the increasing use of heavy weapons, tanks, attack helicopters and – reportedly – even jet fighters in urban areas has already caused many civilian casualties and is putting many more at grave risk."

The UN rights chief also contended that a "discernable pattern has emerged" in how the Syrian regime forces move in on a targeted city or village.

'A matter of time' until regime falls

Pillay said the pattern suggested that regime forces cut off water, electricity and food supplies after surrounding a village or  district. That is followed by "intense shelling and bombardment by a variety of weaponry," which reportedly includes air support from attack helicopters and jets. Tanks move in and ground forces move door-to-door, she said, adding that reports suggest some people are detained, while others are executed.

"The bodies of those executed or otherwise killed are then sometimes burned or taken away," she said.

The uprising against Assad, which began peacefully in March 2011, has become increasingly violent.

Gen. Robert Mood, the outgoing head of the UN monitoring mission, , said in his opinion, it's "only a matter of time" before the regime falls.

"Every time there are 15 people killed in a village, 500 additional sympathizers are mobilized, roughly 100 of whom are fighters," said Mood, who has been replaced by Lt.-Gen. Babacar Gaye, a Senegalese military officer who has a mandate of only 30 days.

Mood, whose three-month mission in Damascus ended last week, also said the situation in Syria is likely to remain unstable even if Assad's government steps down.

"That could easily be the start of a situation that is way worse," he said.

The UN recently said about half of the 300 observers in Syria had been sent home.

Rebel fighters criticized

Opposition fighters were also criticized by Pillay, who said she has received more reports of rebel fighters torturing or executing prisoners.

"Murder and wilful killing, whether committed by government or opposition forces, may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes. Torture, likewise, is prohibited under all circumstances," she said.

Red Cross relocates

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is temporarily moving some of its foreign staff from the Syrian capital of Damascus to neighbouring Lebanon.

A Red Cross spokesman in Geneva says the move was prompted by security concerns but that a core team of about 50 staff would remain.

Hicham Hassan also told The Associated Press that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was suspending some of its operations in the northern city of Aleppo due to heavy fighting.

Hassan says the Red Cross hopes to bring its staff back into the country.

-The Associated Press

Aleppo is not far from the border with Turkey, which, like neighbouring Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, is hosting a growing number of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.

The UN Refugee Agency said on Twitter Friday that roughly 1,400 people crossed from Syria to Jordan overnight, saying it was the most people to cross that border in one night.

Turkey's state-run agency said Friday a Syrian legislator from the northern city of Aleppo has fled to Turkey and warned that Syria was preparing for a massive offensive on cities where rebels are fighting government forces.

The Anadolu agency said Ikhlas Badawi has defected in protest of the Syrian regime's "violence against the people." She would be the first member of Syria's parliament to defect.

John Ray, a journalist who spent several days reporting for ITV in and around Aleppo, told CBC's As It Happens Thursday that there was a "heck of a fight going on" in the outskirts of the city Wednesday night through to early Thursday.

Ray, who was with a detachment of Free Syria Army fighters, said there were shells whizzing overhead and the constant rattle of machine-gun fire.

The forces at Assad's disposal appeared to be "far greater" than anything the rebels had at hand, Ray said Thursday from Turkey.

On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. had "grave concerns" about the situation in Damascus and the clashes in the densely populated commercial hub of Aleppo.

Nuland said Aleppo has been "bombarded by Syrian fighter jets in the latest desperate effort of the Assad regime to hold onto control" and added there are "credible reports" of columns of tanks preparing to attack the city. 

With files from The Associated Press