Syrian rebels sit in a pickup truck in Aleppo, where shelling, street battles… (Alberto Prieto, Associated…)
BEIRUT — Fierce clashes and hours of bombardment were reported Saturday in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where rebels and government forces have been bracing for a critical battle in the nation's commercial hub.
It wasn't clear whether Saturday's fighting signaled the start of a major government offensive to retake the city, a confrontation that could prove a decisive moment in the 17-month rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Losing Aleppo could open up much of northern Syria to opposition control.
An opposition activist contacted late Saturday in an Aleppo suburb said a full government onslaught had not yet begun, despite a day of shelling, street battles and attacks by helicopter gunships.
Earlier in the day, he said, government tanks had tried to enter the rebel-held Salahuddin neighborhood but were repelled. At least 10 government soldiers were killed and dozens wounded in fighting there, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, said Saturday. The group reported 22 people killed Saturday in Aleppo and its suburbs.
The government provided few details on the battle in Aleppo, leaving the situation there murky early Sunday. The official Syrian news agency reported clashes in several Aleppo neighborhoods and "heavy losses" inflicted on "terrorists," referring to armed rebels.
Along with the Salahuddin district, in the southwest, heavy fighting was reported in the city's Sakhur district in the northeast.
The Syrian military could proceed for days, if not weeks, with a strategy of encircling rebel districts and shelling from afar, and thus avoiding having to push forward into narrow streets where tanks and troops could be vulnerable to rebel fire.
That was the successful strategy employed early this year to subdue the rebel-occupied Baba Amr district in the city of Homs, which was subjected to weeks of shelling before insurgents withdrew. The government declared a victory in Baba Amr, but much of the neighborhood was reduced to rubble.
On Saturday, Kofi Annan, the United Nations peace envoy for Syria, said he was concerned about reports of a buildup of troops and heavy weapons around Aleppo in anticipation of a full-scale battle.
In the last week, rebel forces have seized a number of districts in a metropolitan area of more than 2 million that has long been considered a bastion of support for the Assad government.
How much of the sprawling city and its suburbs were engulfed in the fighting remained unknown. Amateur opposition video said to be from Aleppo showed white smoke rising from residential buildings. Another video showed several bodies of men who appeared to be soldiers on a street where an armored personnel carrier had been disabled.
One Aleppo resident reached Saturday via Skype reported that shells were falling "continuously" and that parts of town were deserted.
"There are no people in the streets," he said. "When I went out, I felt I was the only one living in this city."
The man said he had tried to reach the Seif Dawla district of the city, where clashes have been reported, but had to turn back because of heavy fighting.
Thousands of civilians have reportedly fled Aleppo or moved to outlying neighborhoods away from the fighting and shelling.
Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff in Antakya, Turkey, contributed to this report.