Tens of thousands flee Aleppo as fighting rages
BUKULMEZ, Turkey: Some 200,000 people have fled Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, during days of clashes between rebels and the military. Aleppo residents, some severely wounded, are packing up belongings and loading them onto cars, trucks and even motorcycles to seek temporary shelter in rural villages and schools outside the city and dusty tents across the border in Turkey.
In interviews with The Associated Press, refugees described a city besieged by government troops and beset by incessant shelling. Food supplies and gasoline are running low and black market prices for everyday staples are soaring.
The battle for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.
Activists said regime forces were shelling rebel-held districts of the city and a cluster of surrounding villages relentlessly on Monday, sending entire families and panicked residents fleeing. Many went to Turkey, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) away, where tens of thousands of Syrians have already found refuge during the uprising.
The UN said 200,000 Syrians have left Aleppo over the past 10 days as the government trains its mortars, tanks and helicopter gunships on the neighborhoods seized by the rebels.
“I am extremely concerned by the impact of shelling and use of tanks and other heavy weapons on people in Aleppo,” Valerie Amos, the top UN official for humanitarian affairs, said in a statement late Sunday. “Many people have sought temporary shelter in schools and other public buildings in safer areas,” she added. “They urgently need food, mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water.”
“It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today,” she warned.
In online videos, people can be seen scurrying through streets against a backdrop of gunfire and climbing onto any form of transportation available to escape, including trucks, cars and even heavily laden motorcycles. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.
“Dozens of families are packing their belongings and leaving in cars and trucks,” said an activist in a village near Aleppo, who declined to give his name for security reasons. “They are taking only light possessions that they can carry, like a few clothes, some valuables and that’s it.”
“I saw cars with eight, nine people packed in them fleeing the bombing,” he added. He said rebels had seized a nearby checkpoint early Monday and captured several tanks. The regime responded by shelling the rural area just northwest of the city. “Entire families are leaving.”
Videos of the attack on the checkpoint in Andan posted on the Internet show fierce exchanges of fire in the early morning and then later, victorious rebels hauling out boxes of ammunition and taking heavy machine guns for the fight in Aleppo.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry defended its offensive in Aleppo province, saying it was meant to protect innocent people. In two letters addressed to the head of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General, Syria said that “armed terrorist groups” backed openly with funds and weapons by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have committed “horrifying crimes” against innocent civilians. It accused the rebels of using residents as human shields.
Syrian state media reported the army had “purged” Aleppo’s southwestern neighborhood of Salaheddine and inflicted “great losses” upon the rebels in one of the first districts they took control of in their bid to seize the city.
Activists, however, disputed these claims. The assault has knocked down power lines, and the neighborhood has been without electricity since the morning.
Posted by: Steve White