Syrian troops have clashed with rebels in the city of Aleppo for a second day, forcing inhabitants to flee to safer areas in some of the fiercest fighting to date in the heart of the country's northern commercial hub, activists said.
Until recently, Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has remained largely loyal to president Bashar Assad and has been spared the kind of daily bloodshed that has plagued other cities over the course of the uprising against him.
The fighting in the Salaheddine district in the city centre suggested Assad was losing his grip on one more traditional bastion of support.
"This night was very bad, there were huge explosions and the gunfire didn't stop for several hours," said Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed via Skype.
He said dozens of fighters from the rag-tag Free Syrian Army entered Aleppo from the countryside and were now fighting regime troops from inside.
The clashes began Friday and continued throughout the night, most of it in Salaheddine.
"The uprising has finally reached Aleppo," Saeed said.
This week, fierce fighting between troops and rebels reached the Syrian capital, the central bastion of Assad's rule, shattering parts of the city and sending thousands of people fleeing to neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.
Activists and residents reported a tense calm in Damascus but said sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard throughout the night.
Two residents who did not want to be identified for safety reasons said by telephone that the fighting peaked between 1am and 3am local time.