A main water pipe burst during street fighting between the military and rebels in Syria's largest city.
BEIRUT - Clashes between the Syrian military and rebel fighters burst a main pipe that delivered drinking water to millions of residents of Aleppo, opposition groups said Saturday, as the U.N. refugee agency stepped up aid inside the country to more than 1.2 million people, half of them children, who it said had been displaced from their homes.
The agency, which has remained active inside Syria throughout the conflict, said the number of people in need of assistance inside the country had doubled since July to 2.5 million, out of Syria's population of 21 million. Another 250,000 have fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
The sudden water shortage in Aleppo was the latest pinch in a particularly acute humanitarian crisis in Syria's largest city, brought on by more than a month of street fighting and weeks of air attacks. A witness and two opposition groups that track the violence said Saturday that heavy shelling from Syrian helicopters appeared to have ruptured the water pipe; the Associated Press reported that a Syrian official blamed rebel sabotage. Opposition groups reported that water flooded into the neighborhoods of Al Midan and Bustan al-Basha in the north of the city. Activists distributed video images of brown water coursing over curbs and flooding basements as residents carrying children or weapons in their arms waded past.
At the same time, a rebel brigade was trying to cut off food and water to a contingent of soldiers inside the city, said Majed Abdulnoor, an activist and informal rebel spokesman. He said that a rebel brigade had besieged the Al Mudahami security building in Al Midan, blocking any food, water or ammunition from reaching soldiers inside. The shells that cut off the water, Abdulnoor said, were fired in an attempt to free the building. Since Syria restricts the access of journalists, none of the accounts could be confirmed independently.
After reporting a day earlier that they had captured a military headquarters in the Aleppo neighborhood of Hanano, rebels said Saturday that the battle was still under way, with parts of the complex still controlled by the government. Syrians who said they were prisoners rescued from the building spoke in a video distributed online. One, who gave his name as Mustafa al-Rifai, said he was a former soldier who was imprisoned for balking at firing on protesters in April 2011, around the start of the uprising.
Abdulnoor, the activist and spokesman, also acknowledged the presence of some foreign fighters among the rebels, touching on a theme that has been a hallmark of the government's characterization of the civil war as a defense against foreign intervention. The participation of foreigners has also raised questions among some in the West who fear the entry into the conflict of fighters motivated by a militant Islamist ideology.
Most of the fighters in Aleppo are from Aleppo, Abdulnoor said, "but to be honest with you, there are some from other countries." Some brigades, he said, include a few Algerians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Palestinians and others from Persian Gulf countries.