Dawn in the Salaheddin district of Syria’s second city Aleppo has brought a firestorm with four buildings quickly set ablaze as rebels and foreign fighters battled a long-anticipated army offensive.

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“It started at 4.00am (1100 AEST) and eight hours later, it’s still hell. This is madness,” an AFP correspondent reported on Saturday.

Four helicopters launched salvos of rockets before the rebel-held district, which has been surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, was bombarded by artillery and tanks.

Families fled the fighting, clutching jars of preserves and bottles of milk and water amid food shortages.

Three women sheltering in a Salaheddin basement were all armed with small pistols.

“I would choose death rather than be attacked by the regime soldiers,” said one.

Many panic-stricken women and children have fled the quarter since Friday for other parts of the city, leaving behind only groups of men.

The opposition fighting against regime forces includes both Syrian rebels and foreign fighters, who said they belonged to the Liwa al-Tawhid al-Mujahedeen (United Mujahedeen Brigade).

The foreigners told AFP they hailed from Chechnya, Algeria, Sweden and France. When the correspondent was about to pass the phone to a French fighter, the line went dead.

An attack on the Hamdaniyeh district, where the correspondent was stationed, was repelled.

On the road were three tanks and two armoured vehicles destroyed by the opposition, as well as the bodies of five or six soldiers and four rebels.

A senior Free Syrian Army colonel, Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told AFP that 100 tanks were massed on the outskirts of Salaheddin.

In the large district in the southwest of the city, rebels had mounted a machine gun on a red pick-up truck with the words “United Mujahedeen Brigade” spray-painted on its side.

A video posted online by activists shows them shooting frantically at the helicopter gunships above, spurred on by the rallying cries of other rebels in the street.

Another video shows flames licking from a building as gunfire crackles in the background and verses from the Koran can be heard from a nearby mosque.

Women and children have been evacuating the Salaheddin area since Friday, seeking refuge in other areas of the city. Those residents who have opted to stay behind have sought refuge in the basements of houses.

According to the AFP correspondent, there is no electricity and water in the city, and food stocks are so low that it is nearly impossible to find bread supplies.

“There are thousands of people in the streets fleeing the bombardment. They’re being terrorised by helicopter gunships flying at low altitude,” said one activist who identified himself as Amer.

“There’s a large number of civilians who have taken refuge in public parks in safer areas, but most took refuge in schools,” he told AFP via Skype.

“They cannot get out of town and there is no safe place left for them in Syria,” he added.

Until recently, both Aleppo and the capital Damascus had been considered to be relative safe havens.

A Syrian security source told AFP: “Hotspots have been completely blocked off to stop the terrorists from escaping,” the term the regime uses when it refers to the rebels.

One militant suggested that regime forces were resorting to subterfuge.

“Some soldiers are passing themselves off as rebels, and putting up checkpoints with the rebel flag to trap fighters taking supplies between secure areas and ‘hot’ districts,” he said.