ALEPPO, SYRIA // Syrian guns pounded rebel positions in Aleppo and heavy fighting rocked the Old City amid a flurry of diplomatic activity yesterday, as world powers pressed on with the formidable task of seeking an end to the bloodshed.
A day after nearly 140 people were reportedly killed across Syria, the UN refugee agency said the number of civilians fleeing nearly 18 months of violence has reached more than 250,000.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters the humanitarian problems sparked by the conflict were "our biggest crisis".
"The complexity of the crisis is one of the aspects which sets it apart and the speed with which people have fled Syria," Edwards said.
After an eerily quiet morning, a resident reported renewed bombardments of the Kalasseh and Bustan Al Qasr districts in the south, Suleiman Al Halabi in the centre and Bustan Al Basha in the north.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that five people, including a child, were killed in shelling of the rebel stronghold of Sakhur, and 12 people killed altogether in Aleppo province.
Drinking water supplies - cut off in many areas of the city after a main pipe was blown open during fighting and air raids on Saturday - were restored after repairs, the resident said.
But shortages persisted in the north-east of the city, including in Bustan Al Basha.
International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was in Cairo to meet exiled opposition leaders ahead of a planned visit to Damascus, his spokesman said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was also there for talks with President Mohammed Morsi, amid a diplomatic flurry in the Egyptian capital, where Syrian neighbours gathered to discuss the conflict.
Mr Brahimi would meet "representatives of the Syrian opposition as well as activists and Syrian intellectuals," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
The envoy began on Monday what he called a "very difficult" mission to bring peace to Syria.
"I realise it's a very difficult mission, but I think it is not my right to refuse to give whatever assistance I can to the Syrian people," Brahimi said, adding that he planned on going to Damascus within a "few days."
France has helped a number of Syrian military figures to desert from President Bashar Al Assad's embattled regime, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday. "We have contributed to a certain number of desertion operations," he told a parliamentary commission, without giving any further details.
The comment came a day after defected general Manaf Tlass said French secret agents helped him escape in July from Syria, where he had been a member of Mr Al Assad's inner circle. A general in the elite Republican Guard charged with protecting the regime, Mr Tlass is the son of former defence minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of Mr Al Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez Al Assad. In the capital, meanwhile, an explosion rocked the upscale western district of Mazzeh overnight, and pro-regime gunmen fought rebels in Barzeh, another wealthy neighbourhood, the Observatory said.
Fierce clashes broke out south of the capital in Tadamun and the nearby Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, the watchdog said, adding that three civilians were killed in shelling of the area of Al Hajar Al Aswad nearby.
Just south of Damascus, at least one man was killed by sniper fire as clashes raged in the towns of Babila and Yalda, where the army launched a large-scale operation, the Observatory said.
At least nine people, including a woman and child, were killed in shelling of houses in the town of Kfar Zeita in the central province of Hama, according to the Observatory.
In Deir Ezzor province in the east, warplanes bombarded the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, killing four people, including three women. They also hit several districts of Deir Ezzor city, where clashes broke out and rebels deployed anti-aircraft guns.
The watchdog gave an initial toll of at least 36 people killed nationwide yesterday - 33 of them civilians - after a day in which 139 lives were claimed.
More than 27,000 people have been killed since the revolt broke out in May 2011, according to the Observatory, which gathers its information from a network of sources on the ground.
The plight of the refugees was also under the spotlight as Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie spoke to journalists at the UN-run Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, flanked by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
"We encourage the international community to do everything they can to support these refugees, and there is much to be done," said Jolie, a special envoy of the agency.
"It has been a very heavy experience," she said of her tour of the camp. "It is very emotional to be with people who are wondering who is on their side."
Syria's neighbours who have sheltered refugees have been pleading for funds and Jordan says it needs $700 million in international aid to cope with the influx.
The United Nations says more than 1.2 million civilians, more than half of them children, have also been displaced inside Syria.
The World Health Organisation said it was seeking to reinforce its activities in the battered central city of Homs, where hospitals are "overwhelmed with patients", according to spokesman Tarik Jasarevic.
"The humanitarian situation is grave and continues to deteriorate," Jasarevic told a news conference in Geneva. The WHO says that only half of Homs's 12 public hospitals are functioning and at a reduced capacity.