The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began ten days ago.
The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions Monday, pressing ahead with a counter-offensive to wrest back control of neighborhoods taken by rebels in Syria's largest city and commercial hub.
"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 U.N. 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."
Amos said U.N. agencies and the Syrian Red Crescent are working together on supplying those affected by the fighting all over the country with blankets and humanitarian supplies, but many remain out of their reach because of the combat.
"It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today," she warned. Aleppo is Syria's largest city and commercial hub with about 3 million inhabitants.
Fleeing residents have described to The Associated Press incessant shelling, shortages of food and gasoline and soaring black market prices for everyday staples. They scurry through streets against a backdrop of gunfire and climbed onto any form of transportation available to escape, including trucks, cars and even heavily laden motorcycles.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said late Sunday that the use of heavy weapons, particularly helicopters, is just another nail in President Bashar Assad's coffin. He spoke during a stopover in Tunisia as he kicked off a Mideast tour expected to focus heavily on the unfolding crisis in Syria.
Syrian state media reported late Sunday that 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 and just described another day of fierce shelling of certain areas, backed up by the occasional foray on the ground. "They have tanks in nearby Hamdaniya and there is fighting, and there have been random bombardments of Salaheddine," said Mohammed Saeed, who is based in the embattled city.
While giving no indication that the Obama administration is contemplating military intervention, Panetta said it is increasingly clear that the Syrian crisis is deepening and that Assad is hastening his own demise. "If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people, ... I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's coffin," Panetta told reporters traveling with him from Washington. "His regime is coming to an end."
The Syrian regime has been plagued by a string of defections, including three high-ranking diplomats and several military commanders. On Monday, a Turkish official said a Syrian brigadier general who was deputy chief of police in the Latakia region had defected.
He was among a group of 12 Syrian officers who crossed into Turkey late Sunday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. His defection raised to 28 the number of generals who have left for Turkey since the start of the 17-month-old uprising.
But Syria's army remains mostly intact and still vastly outguns the rebel forces, who are armed for the most part with assault rifles and machine guns and don't have the heavy weapons necessary to effectively oppose tanks and helicopter gunships.
The government reinforced its troops outside Aleppo and began an assault over the weekend to retake the city, bombarding rebel neighborhoods and leaving streets littered with rubble and empty apartment blocks with gaping smashed windows, according to videos of the city posted online in recent days.
Monday on Worldview, Moyheddin Kassar gives a firsthand account of the situation from the Syrian-Turkish border. Kassar is the Chicago-based President of the Syrian American society, but has been in Turkey for the past six weeks, working to raise money to aid refugees and rebel fighters.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey