Residents flee fierce Aleppo clashes: watchdog

Fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and regime forces has sparked an exodus of residents from the Sheikh Maqsud district of the northern city of Aleppo, a watchdog group said on Sunday.

"The Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood has seen a major exodus after shells hit the area, destroying several homes," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"Hundreds of cars carrying families were seen leaving the neighbourhood."

Battles have been raging in the strategic, predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood since Friday, as regime troops try to prevent rebels from advancing into the district.

Sheikh Maqsud sits atop a hill, with vantage points over all of Aleppo. Its capture would be a key victory for the rebels, allowing them to target districts still in regime hands.

Since fighting erupted in the neighbourhood, 43 people have been killed in fighting, including 15 civilians and five soldiers, the Observatory said.

On Saturday, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported that rebels had killed a pro-regime Sunni cleric in Sheikh Maqsud, dragging his body through the streets afterwards.

Sheikh Hassan Seifeddin "was killed overnight Friday by rebel fighters in the east of the area and his body was dragged through the streets," the Observatory said.

State news agency SANA reported that Seifeddin was "assassinated by terrorists who mutilated his body afterwards," while official television station Al-Ikhbariya said he had been "slaughtered" and beheaded.

Elsewhere, SANA said "armed terrorists groups" has "set fire to three oil wells in the province of Deir Ezzor, after a dispute between them on sharing stolen oil."

The agency also reported claims that rebels forces were responsible for a "massacre" of at least 10 people in the town of Tal Kalakh in southern Syria, an accusation denied by opposition activists.

"Last night, terrorists committed a new massacre against peaceful citizens in the city of Tal Kalakh in the Homs countryside, storming the Burj neighbourhood and killing a number of citizens, including women and children," SANA reported.

Activists pointed the finger of blame at government forces.

"The bodies of 11 people, including eight women, were recovered after they were executed during a raid by regime forces in the Burj neighbourhood of Tal Kalakh today, according to activists in the area," the Observatory said.

In Damascus province, a car bomb exploded at a rebel checkpoint, killing at least five rebel fighters, the group added.

At least 53 people were killed in violence across the country on Sunday, according to a preliminary toll from the Observatory.

Speaking in front of some 250,000 people from around the world in the Vatican, Pope Francis prayed for "dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.

"How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?" he asked.