Assault on Aleppo imminent: UN

A showdown between government troops and opposition forces in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, is imminent, the UN's human rights office has said, as the Red Cross reported it is pulling staff out of the capital Damascus.

Rebels have been locked in fierce fighting with government troops in Aleppo for six days and are bracing for an attack amid reports that the regime is massing reinforcements to retake the embattled city of three million.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said unconfirmed reports are coming out of Damascus of extra-judicial killings and shootings of civilians. Expressing deep alarm at the situation, Ms Pillay said the report "bodes ill for the people of that city (Aleppo)".

She said she believes president Bashar Assad's regime and opposition forces are both committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. "It goes without saying, that the increasing use of heavy weapons, tanks, attack helicopters and, reportedly, even jet fighters in urban areas has already caused many civilian casualties and is putting many more at grave risk," she added.

Ms Pillay said there have been clashes in Homs and Deir el-Zour and there is a pattern of government forces trying to clear areas it says are occupied by opposition forces.

A senior UN diplomat close to the mediation effort of international envoy Kofi Annan said they are "watching the situation in Aleppo with great concern". He added: "The ground is shifting. While we are trying to apportion blame (for the diplomatic stand-off), people are dying. Kids are being slaughtered."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said today it is temporarily moving some of its foreign staff from Damascus to neighbouring Lebanon. A Red Cross spokesman in Geneva, Hicham Hassan, said the move was prompted by security concerns but that a core team of about 50 staff would remain. Mr Hassan also said the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was suspending some of its operations in Aleppo due to heavy fighting but that the Red Cross hopes to bring its staff back into the country.

"It's due to the deteriorating security situation in Damascus," he said. "This in no way means we are suspending our activities, especially at a time when needs are growing. They will go back to Damascus at the appropriate time."

Mohammed Saeed, an Aleppo-based activist, said helicopters were firing with heavy machine-guns on rebel-held areas east and west of the city. He added that army reinforcements arrived in the city on Thursday and a major attack is expected any time.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that troops had bombarded the neighbourhood of Fardous, killing at least four people. It added that Sunni cleric Abdul-Latif al-Shami was kidnapped and killed in Aleppo. Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the observatory, said army reinforcements took positions around Aleppo. "I expect the attack to begin today," he said.