A Syrian rebel takes position as a helicopter hovers over the northern city of Aleppo
Syrian army tanks shelled Aleppo on Sunday and a helicopter gunship strafed rebel positions with heavy machinegun fire as they fought for control of the country's biggest city and key battleground of the 17-month uprising.
After U.N. Security Council paralysis on Syria forced peace envoy, Kofi Annan to resign last week, and with his ceasefire plan a distant memory, rebels have been battered by the government onslaught in Aleppo and the capital Damascus.
A Reuters correspondent in Aleppo witnessed fierce street fighting in the Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city of 2.5 million people.
Tanks pounded alleyways where rebels sought cover and one shell hit a building next to the reporter, pouring rubble onto the street and sending huge billows of smoke into the sky.
State television said Assad's forces were "cleansing the terrorist filth" from the country, which has been sucked into an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed some 18,000 people and could spill into neighboring states.
In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital on Saturday as troops kept up an offensive they began a day earlier against the last rebel bastion there, a resident said.
Both cities - vital prizes in the battle for Syria - were relatively free of violence in the early months of the uprising but fighting flared in Damascus shortly before a July 18 bomb killed four of Assad's inner circle. It later erupted in Aleppo.
On Saturday, a rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels "within days", echoing the head of the U.N. peacekeeping department who said there had been a "considerable build-up of military means".
"We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days and they plan to take the city," Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said.
Once a busy shopping and restaurant district where residents would spend evenings with their families, Aleppo's Salaheddine district is now white with dust, broken concrete and rubble.
Tank shell holes gape wide on the top of buildings near the front line, and homes of families and couples have been turned into look outs and sniper locations for rebel fighters.
Large mounds of concrete are used as barriers to close off streets, the whiff of weapon fire and rotting garbage intermix. Lamp posts lie horizontally across the streets after being downed by shelling, their wiring swinging idly in the wind.
Civilians trickle back to collect their belongings and check on their homes. Late on Saturday a confused elderly man stumbled into 15th street as rebels exchanged fire with the army.