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Syria: The number of displaced civilians grows (+video)

A particularly violent phase of the Syrian conflict has been ongoing for the past ten days. Meanwhile, the international community pressures the Assad regime to avoid the use of chemical weapons. 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Erika SolomonReuters / July 24, 2012

This citizen journalism image provided by Ugarit News, taken on Monday, July 23, 2012, purports to show damage from heavy shelling of the al-Qadam district of Damascus, Syria.

AP Photo/ Ugarit News

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AMMAN/BEIRUT

Syria sent thousands of troops surging towards Aleppo in the early hours of Wednesday, where its forces have been pounding rebel fighters from the air, engulfing the country's largest city in total warfare to put down a revolt.

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The Syrian Free Army has mounted a major opposition offensive to take the country's vital commercial hub and largest city of Aleppo under their control.

Recent days have seen Syria's 16-month-old uprising transformed from an insurgency in remote provinces into a battle for control of the two main cities, Aleppo and the slightly smaller capital, Damascus, where fighting exploded last week.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces have launched massive counter assaults in both cities. They appear to have beaten rebels back from neighbourhoods in the capital and are turning towards Aleppo, a commercial hub in the north.

Syrian forces fired artillery and rocket barrages early on Wednesday at the northern Damascus suburb of al-Tel in an attempt to seize the town from rebels, causing mass panic and forcing hundreds of families to flee the area, residents and opposition activists said.

The 216th mechanized battalion headquartered near Tel started bombarding the town of about 100,000 people at 3:15 a.m. (0015 GMT) and initial reports indicated residential apartment blocks were being hit, they said.

"Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were awakened by the sound of explosions and are running away," Rafe Alam, one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel. "Electricity and telephones have been cut off."

Opposition activists said thousands of troops had withdrawn with their tanks and armoured vehicles from the strategic Jabal al-Zawiya highlands in Idlib province near the Turkish border and were headed towards Aleppo.

Rebels attacked the rear of the troops withdrawing from the region at the villages of Orom al-Joz and rami near the main Aleppo-Latakia road and at the village of al-Bara west of the Aleppo-Damascus highway, activist Abdelrahman Bakran said from the area.

In Aleppo, helicopters swirled overhead firing missiles throughout Tuesday, residents said. Rebels were battling government forces by the gates of the historic old city. Troops fired mortars and shells at rebels armed with rifles and machineguns.

"I heard at least 20 rockets fired, I think from helicopters, and also a lot of machinegun fire," a resident near one of the areas being shelled, who asked to be identified only by his first name Omar, said by telephone.

"Almost everyone has fled in panic, even my family. I have stayed to try to stop the looters; we hear they often come after an area is shelled."

Residents said fixed-wing jets had also flown over the city, followed by loud noises, although there were contradictory reports as to whether they had fired.

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