BEIRUT — Despite mounting international criticism, the Syrian government's offensive on the northern city of Aleppo intensified Friday as government aircraft bombed the country's commercial heart.
The United States, Britain and the United Nations have voiced growing alarm of an imminent massacre there as government troops appear poised for a showdown with rebel fighters. Deaths have been reported but figures cannot be confirmed.
Army troops and rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army have been locked in battles for nearly a week.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said President Basher al-Assad's forces were using helicopter gunships in several Aleppo neighborhoods Friday. It reported clashes and explosions in other areas of the city.
A spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she is expressing “deep alarm” at the threat to civilians as the conflict spreads and the violence escalates.
Spokesman Rupert Colville said Pillay is particularly worried about the situation in Aleppo.
“The high commissioner is also expressing particular concern about this imminent confrontation that seems to be going to happen in Aleppo," he said. "Obviously everything that's gone on in the past 16 months has to make one worry about a showdown in such a big city.”
Nearly three million people live in the northwestern city, which until recent days had mostly stayed out of the conflict.
Pillay's spokesman says their office has been analyzing recent attacks by government forces on towns where they believe rebel fighters to be and says an alarming pattern has emerged.
“Typically during the initial stages, after they have surrounded either a village or an urban district the water, electricity and the food supplies are cut," he said. "This is then followed by a period - sometimes a very extended period - of intense shelling and bombardment by a variety of weaponry, including heavy weapons, such as artillery, mortars, rockets and increasingly air support from helicopters.
"And then what usually happens is that the tanks and armored vehicles move in and these are followed by the ground forces," the spokesman said. "The ground forces are then tending to go door-to-door and often reportedly summarily executing people they suspect of being fighters who they find inside.”
Washington has also expressed fears of a potential “massacre” on the city saying it believes that is what the regime appears to be planning.
State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Thursday there are credible reports of columns of tanks prepared to attack the city.
“Our hearts are with the people of Aleppo, and again, this is another desperate attempt by a regime that is going down to try to maintain control, and we are greatly concerned about they are capable of in Aleppo,” Inland said.
Red Cross Moves
On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it is moving some of its foreign staff from Syria to Lebanon because of security concerns. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent is also suspending some of its aid operations in Aleppo due to the fighting.
Control of Aleppo could prove a tipping point in the country's 16-month long conflict, providing a significant victory for whichever side prevails there.
Meanwhile, the Assad government lost further support.
Media reports Friday said a Syrian lawmaker from Aleppo has fled to Turkey, becoming one of several members of Syria's parliament to defect during the uprising.
Ikhlas Badawi reportedly told Sky News Arabia she defected because of the Assad government's repression and torture of the Syrian people.
The news comes just days after the defections of Syria's ambassadors to Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates, blows to President Assad characterized by the White House as an indication that his "days are numbered."
Assad has also faced the defections of Syria's ambassador to Iraq and a number of high-ranking military officers, including his one-time confidante Manaf Tlas, a top general in the Republican Guard.
Some information in this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters