Assad's tanks roll in as Russians warn of tragedy

Another massacre looms as government forces bombard rebel-held city

Syrian government tanks backed by attack helicopters launched an assault yesterday to regain control of Aleppo, the country's second city, after rebels seized several areas. The fight for the city, a major commercial centre, raised fears among activists and the international community that a fresh massacre was likely within days.

Russia, Syria's longtime ally, added to an international chorus of alarm warning that a "tragedy" was imminent in Aleppo. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said it was unrealistic to expect the Syrian army to stand by while rebels were trying to take over major cities. Mr Lavrov also said that Moscow was "not thinking about" granting Syria's President Assad asylum.

Fighting centred around the south-western neighbourhood of Salaheddine, one of the first areas seized by the rebels after they were routed from the capital, Damascus. Activists said helicopters strafed the area and rebels faced artillery barrages and tanks.

Mohammed Saeed, an Aleppo-based activist, said the government counterattack had begun and rebels were fighting back. "Thanks be to God, they haven't succeeded in entering any of the neighbourhoods yet," he said.

Though Western media is largely unable to gain access to the areas held by rebels, the BBC reported a heavily artillery bombardment could be heard throughout Aleppo, and there were reports of heavy casualties.

An emergency call went out to doctors to help. It said there had been constant shelling and mortar rounds all day, together with weapons fire from helicopters. A steady stream of vehicles has been heading out of the city carrying hundreds of families trying to escape the violence and deteriorating conditions.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces are massed outside the city. Mr Saeed said rebels from around the country have also been pouring in to help defend the areas under their control. "About 1,000 fighters have come from the Free Syrian Army from outside the province to help," he said.

State television reported that government forces had inflicted heavy losses on groups of terrorists, the term the regime uses for the rebels. The pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan called it "the mother of all battles".

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the government attack started before dawn with the bombardment of several areas, followed by the movement of armoured vehicles backed by attack helicopters. Based on reports from contacts on the ground, SOHR reported attacks in the north-eastern area of Sakhour as well as other areas, and said the rebels had disabled a number of the regime's armoured vehicles.

The international community has expressed growing concern there could be major bloodshed as Syrian troops retake Aleppo. But Western nations and their allies have found themselves powerless to prevent the situation from deteriorating despite a series of diplomatic efforts, including a ceasefire agreement that didn't take effect.

"The regime's destruction of its own city shows the level of oppression that has been reached in Syria," said the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking yesterday. "We will do our best to stop this oppression," he said.

Defending the regime in Damascus, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "Now the city of Aleppo is occupied by the armed opposition; another tragedy is imminent there," he said.

"How can it be hoped that in such a situation the government will simply give in, say, 'OK, I wasn't right, overthrow me, change the regime'? It's simply unrealistic."

Russia has been a key source of support for Syria, although Moscow officials have said in recent months they are simply taking a more even-handed approach while the West offers blind support to the rebels.

It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials.

The regime, however, launched a swift counter-offensive and quashed the assault on the capital with a combination of heavy weapons and house-to-house searches. Scores of people were killed. Opposition activists said they expected similar tactics in the coming days to keep Aleppo from falling into rebel hands.

With a population of about three million, Aleppo is Syria's commercial hub, a key pillar of support for Assad's regime. The rebels are outgunned by the Syrian forces, making it difficult for them to hold any territory for long. They risk being annihilated by Assad's superior firepower and may yet decide to withdraw to preserve their forces. Their run on Damascus and Aleppo, however, suggests they could be gaining in power and organisation.

Saudi Arabia and other nations have spoken positively of arming the rebels, though no country is known to be doing so. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a national campaign to collect money for "our brothers in Syria" on 22 July, and yesterday it was reported Saudi donations now totalled more than $72m (£45m).