Beirut: Fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and regime forces has sparked an exodus of residents from the northern Aleppo district of Sheikh Maqsud, 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 significant districts still in regime hands.

The Observatory said both the eastern and western parts of the district were under fire, with shelling destroying several homes and causing casualties.

Fighting had previously been concentrated in the eastern part of the area, which is home to the district’s non-Kurdish Sunni population.

On Saturday, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported that rebels had killed a pro-regime Sunni cleric in the neighbourhood, 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.

“The ulema (clerics) of Aleppo denounce this despicable crime committed by the enemies of humanity who assassinated Sheikh Hassan Seifeddin and laid his head on the minaret of Al-Hassan mosque in Sheikh Maqsud," the station reported.

More than 30 people have been killed in the neighbourhood since the fighting began on Friday, according to the Observatory, which said 146 people were killed throughout Syria on Saturday.

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