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Luke Harding in Aleppo province and Martin Chulov in Beirut, Friday 27th July 2012 19:53
Syrian forces are continuing to mass on the outskirts of the country's second city, Aleppo, ahead of what Damascus has warned will be "the mother of all battles".
Rebels and regime forces have sent reinforcements to Syria's commercial hub and most populous city for the past week. Both sides have billed the showdown, expected to be launched over the weekend, as a key moment in the 18-month uprising, which has now escalated into civil war.
Skirmishes started around daybreak on Friday and continued throughout the morning as government forces sent an armoured column from nearby Idlib and large numbers of infantry forces from Damascus and Homs.
Waiting for them is a rebel force emboldened by two weeks of mass defections and galvanised by the relative success of its co-ordinated attack on the capital, Damascus, which has shaken the confidence of regime forces and boosted morale among the badly outgunned guerrillas.
Rebel forces have deployed in large numbers in the Salahedin district and said they expected a mass regime attack from the west in the coming hours.
Speaking at the frontline just outside Aleppo, Abdul Nassar, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, said he had been unable to make contact on Friday with his fighters inside the city.
"The regime has hacked all communications. We have no email or telephone communication with our units on the ground," he said. Nassar said Aleppo had been under continuous bombardment from the Syrian army, with mortar fire and attacks from helicopter gunships throughout the day. "The shelling was going on all night, and in the morning. You can hear it now," he said, as a large boom thundered in the nearby hills.
The battle for Aleppo has been seen as the most telling of the civil war. Whoever prevails in the days or weeks ahead is likely to have an upper hand in fighting elsewhere in the country. Al Watan, a newspaper which like most Syrian media outlets is loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, splashed with the headline predicting "the mother of all battles".
Although the FSA captured part of the city last week, the regime still controls the north and west, and has checkpoints, plus tanks, on key approach roads. The FSA can only reach the centre by taking country roads and bypassing an army base 20km from the north-western city limits.
Despite the unequal battle on the ground, FSA soldiers said they were confident they would win the fight for Aleppo. "They [the regime] still have the big cities and the big military bases. But the control of the government is shrinking," another commander, Abu Ahmed, said.