BUKULMEZ, Turkey – Smoking a cigarette outside a Turkish hospital near the Syrian border, a man in a gray gown and flip-flops held his sleeping 2-year-old daughter, Aya. On Aya’s right eye was a bandage. In her left hand was a chocolate bar.
Aya lost her eye when she was struck by shrapnel from a shell that also killed her 8-month-old brother, Mohammad, and their mother. The father and daughter were among some 200,000 people who the U.N. said late Sunday have fled Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, during days of clashes between rebels and the military.
Aleppo residents, some severely wounded, are packing up belongings and loading them onto cars, trucks and even motorcycles to seek temporary shelter in rural villages and schools outside the city and dusty tents across the border in Turkey.
President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Monday and agreed to “coordinate efforts to assist the growing numbers of displaced Syrians, not only within Syria, but in Turkey and the broader region,” according to a White House statement.
In interviews with the Associated Press, refugees described a city besieged by government troops and beset by incessant shelling. Food supplies and gasoline are running low and black market prices for everyday staples are soaring.
As the violence intensified, the country’s most senior diplomat in London defected. Charge d’affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi is the latest in a string of high-profile diplomats to abandon President Bashar Assad’s regime over a crackdown that, according to rights activists, has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011.
Al-Ayoubi “has told us that he is no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people, and is therefore unable to continue in his position,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said in a statement. “His departure is another blow to the Assad regime.”
The battle for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.
Activists said regime forces were shelling rebel-held districts of the city and a cluster of surrounding villages relentlessly on Monday, sending entire families and panicked residents fleeing. Many went to Turkey, some 30 miles away, where tens of thousands of Syrians have already found refuge during the uprising.
Reem, a woman in her 30s who fled Aleppo’s rebel-held district of Saif al-Dawleh, was among those who showed up in Turkey on Monday.
“The situation in Aleppo is dreadful,” she told the AP soon after arriving at the Bukulmez illegal border crossing, where she was greeted by Turkish soldiers.
“Had it been merely bearable I wouldn’t have left my home,” she said.
Wearing a black head scarf and black robe and sandals, Reem described hiding for three days in a room near the entrance of the building in which she lived. She then fled to a village near the Turkish border before crossing over on Monday.
“I blame the regime for everything. People in the city used to go out and protest peacefully, but they just shot at them,” said Reem, who would not give her last name.
Outside the state-run hospital, Aya’s father recounted how his family’s tragedy unfolded.
“I was at work when I received the call that a shell had hit my house,” he said. “As soon as I returned, I found my wife and son dead on the floor. Part of my son’s skull was blown off, and Aya was wounded.”
“The whole city is destroyed,” said Aya’s father, who would not give his name but said he was from the rebel-held district of Bustan al-Qasr.
The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have left Aleppo over the past 10 days as the government trains its mortars, tanks and helicopter gunships on the neighborhoods seized by the rebels.
“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.
“It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today,” she warned.
In online videos, people can be seen scurrying through streets against a backdrop of gunfire and climbing onto any form of transportation available to escape, including trucks, cars and even heavily laden motorcycles.
The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.
“Dozens of families are packing their belongings and leaving in cars and trucks,” said an activist in a village near Aleppo, who declined to give his name for security reasons. “They are taking only light possessions that they can carry, like a few clothes, some valuables, and that’s it.
“I saw cars with eight, nine people packed in them fleeing the bombing,” he added. He said rebels had seized a nearby checkpoint early Monday and captured several tanks. The regime responded by shelling the rural area just northwest of the city. “Entire families are leaving.”
Videos of the attack on the checkpoint in Andan posted on the Internet show fierce exchanges of fire in the early morning and then later, victorious rebels hauling out boxes of ammunition and taking heavy machine guns for the fight in Aleppo.
Among those wounded in Aleppo province on Monday was Al-Jazeera correspondent Omar Khashram, who was hurt by shrapnel after a mortar round fell near his car, a colleague said.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry defended its offensive in Aleppo province, saying it was meant to protect innocent people.
In two letters addressed to the head of the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Secretary General, Syria said that “armed terrorist groups” backed openly with funds and weapons by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have committed “horrifying crimes” against innocent civilians. It accused the rebels of using residents as human shields.
Syrian state media reported 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. The assault has knocked down power lines, and the neighborhood has been without electricity since the morning.
The Turkish state-run Anadolu agency reported Monday that Turkey is deploying more troops to the border, sending tanks, armored combat vehicles, more missile launchers and infantry troops.
In addition to Turkey, the violence in Syria has sent refugees flooding into Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Greece has responded by quadrupling the number of guards on its borders with Turkey out of fear of a potential influx of Syrian refugees.
Al-Ayoubi, the Syrian diplomat in London, is the fourth high-ranking envoy to defect. He was preceded by the charge d’affaires in Cyprus, her husband, a diplomat in the UAE, and by the ambassador to Iraq.
Turkey reported that the deputy head of security for Syria’s Latakia region, a regime stronghold, had defected as well.
The brigadier general 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.