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In this Tuesday, July 24, 2012 photo, a Syrian boy sits atop a damaged military tank at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria.Turkpix

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Assad regime Friday to stop its offensive on Syria's second city Aleppo, amid fears of an all-out onslaught against rebel forces and civilians.

"I'm seriously concerned by the escalating violence in Aleppo," Mr. Ban said during a visit to London for the Olympic Games. "I urge the Syrian government to halt the offensive."

Aleppo has been pounded with artillery and tank fire this week as air force jets and helicopters bombarded rebel enclaves with rockets, but the worst is yet to come as both sides in this grim conflict prepare for what a regime newspaper says will be "the mother of all battles."

Some 2,000 opposition fighters, joined by as many as 2,000 fighters from outside the city and abroad, are dug into Aleppo's southeastern neighbourhood of Salaheddin. On Friday, the Red Cross pulled some of its foreign staff from Damascus out of concern for the safety of its workers.

With only small arms and religious zeal, the rebels are no match for what is to come. Britain on Friday said a Syrian regime attack on Aleppo would be unacceptable and could lead to huge loss of civilian life and a humanitarian disaster.

"I am deeply concerned by reports that the Syrian Government is amassing its troops and tanks around Aleppo, and has already begun a vicious assault on the city and its civilian population," Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

France expressed a similar concern: "With the build-up of heavy weapons around Aleppo, Assad is preparing to carry out a fresh slaughter of his own people," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told AFP, echoing similar concerns expressed by U.S. officials.

Several times as many forces of the Syrian regime's elite divisions have been gathering on the outskirts of the ancient city, waiting for the order to attack, expected to come Friday.

Among other weapons, some 100 tanks are reported already to be in the city preparing to move with the troops.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington is concerned "that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that's what the regime appears to be lining up for."

A rebel operation to seize control of Aleppo started last Friday and enjoyed some sensational success but ground to a halt by midweek, leaving the opposition fighters in control of less than a quarter of the city.

They're not expected to hold that for much longer.

"Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists," boasted the pro-regime Al Watan newspaper Thursday, "and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis."

The rebel attack in Aleppo started just as government troops launched an operation in Damascus last Friday to rid the capital of opposition fighters who had entered the city for the first time in any large way.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is fighting rebels on several fronts throughout the country, and seemed to want to wait for the end of its operation in Damascus, before launching the final assault on the rebel fighters in Aleppo.

On Thursday, Syrian military leaders said that opposition fighters had been swept from the capital city, and all eyes now are on the northern city of Aleppo, a commercial centre that once was the end of the famous Silk Road coming from China.

The people of Aleppo have always preferred to keep their distance from Damascus, even seeking a union with Iraq 65 years ago rather than join with Damascus in forming modern-day Syria.

For months, this independent spirit kept the city out of the conflict that started in March last year.

But a series of rebel bombings, heavy-handed government repression and popular unrest eventually brought the city into play, at least to some extent.

It was only last week's rebel surge that really put the city on the front lines.

With the surge and the battles in Syria's two most important urban centres, July is about to be the deadliest month of the 17 months in this popular uprising/civil war.

Syria's Local Coordination Committees reported that 20 people had been killed in fighting in Aleppo Thursday, 26 were killed the day before.

Throughout the country, an average of more than 100 people are being killed every day this month.

That number is likely to spike this weekend.

With reports from AFP and AP