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'Dozens die in battles for key north Syria towns'

world Updated: Oct 11, 2012 13:36 IST

AFP
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Dozens of people have died in battles between Syrian troops and rebels for strategic northern towns, a watchdog said on Thursday, adding that war planes were bombing rebel belts in the central city of Homs.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 69 people -- 15 civilians, 21 soldiers and 33 rebels -- were killed in clashes Wednesday in the northern province of Idlib province, including for control of Maaret al-Numan and other towns along the highway linking Damascus to the commercial capital Aleppo.

Regime forces from early Thursday resumed shelling of Maaret al-Numan, which was seized on Tuesday by rebels after a 48-hour battle and heavy shelling, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Syria's army has sent reinforcements to help retake the towns so that road links can be restored with Aleppo, which since mid-July has been one of the main focuses of the civil war ravaging Syria.

But insurgents were trying to halt the advance using rocket launchers and improvised explosive devices, a rebel source said.

In the central province of Homs, the town of Qusayr and rebel districts in the city of Homs came under attack by the army on Thursday, the Observatory said.

"Regime forces used war planes to bomb the Khaldiyeh district, which they have been trying to break into for the past several days. There are now clashes near the neighbourhood," the Observatory said.

It added that at least four soldiers troops had died in the fighting, while the rebels had also suffered casualties in their ranks.

Mortar fire rained down from early morning on the nearby town of Qusayr, close to the Lebanon border, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground.

The army has intensified operations against Homs and Qusayr, which have been besieged by regime forces for months, vowing to overrun them by the end of the week to free up troops for battle zones in the north.

On Tuesday, state television said that government troops had entered Khaldiyeh and were "pursuing the remnants of the terrorists," using regime terminology for the rebels.

According to the Observatory, thousands of civilians remain trapped in the besieged, rebel-held districts of the city rebels refer to as "the capital of the revolution."

Thursday's fighting followed after a bloody day in which almost 200 people were killed nationwide in Syria, according to the Observatory, which gleans its information from a network of activists, medics and lawyers on the ground.