BUKULMEZ, Turkey -- Smoking a cigarette outside a Turkish hospital near the Syrian border, a man in a gray gown and flip-flops held his sleeping daughter. On 2-year-old Aya's right eye was a bandage. In her left hand was a chocolate bar.
Aya lost her eye when she was struck by shrapnel from a shell that also killed her 8-month-old brother, Mohammad, and their mother. The father and daughter were among 200,000 people who the UN said late Sunday have fled Syria's largest city, Aleppo, during days of clashes between rebels and the military.
Aleppo residents, some severely wounded, are packing up belongings and loading them onto cars, trucks and motorcycles to seek temporary shelter in rural villages and schools outside the city and dusty tents across the border in Turkey.
In interviews with The Associated Press, refugees described a city besieged by government troops and beset by incessant shelling. Food supplies and gasoline are running low and black market prices for everyday staples are soaring.
As the violence intensified, the country's most senior diplomat in London defected. Charge d'affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi is the latest in a string of high-profile diplomats to abandon President Bashar Assad's regime over a crackdown that, according to rights activists, has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011.
The battle for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.
Activists said regime forces were shelling rebel-held districts of the city and a cluster of surrounding villages relentlessly yesterday, sending entire families and other panicked residents fleeing. Many went to Turkey, where thousands of Syrians have already found refuge during the uprising.
Reem, in her 30s, left Aleppo's rebel-held district of Saif al-Dawleh and was among those who showed up in Turkey yesterday.
"I blame the regime for everything. People in the city used to go out and protest peacefully, but they just shot at them," said Reem, who would not give her last name.
Turkish troops ordered an AP team to leave shortly after journalists began interviewing refugees at the border crossing.