Syrian warplanes have pounded a strategic northern city with three airstrikes as ground troops pushed forward to recapture the area recently taken by rebels, activists said.
The fighting over Maaret al-Numan, which sits along the main highway that connects Aleppo and Damascus, comes as the regime intensifies efforts to retake the area that was seized by rebels earlier this month.
Their presence has disrupted the regime’s ability to send supplies and reinforcements to Aleppo, where regime forces are bogged down in a bloody fight for control of the country’s largest city.
Syrian troops have been fighting against rebels in Aleppo since July and rebel advances over the past week have added urgency to the battle. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people, including three young girls, were killed in the air raids on Maaret al-Numan.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees put the death toll from the airstrikes and ground fire at 19. Discrepancies in casualty tolls are frequent because of restrictions on independent reporting and the chaos on the ground. The LCC and the Observatory reported air raids on several suburbs of Damascus including the restive areas of Arbeen, Zamalka and Douma.
Tuesday’s airstrikes came a day after activists reported the most widespread bombing in a single day since Syria’s 19-month crisis began.
Maaret al-Numan was among the hardest hit on Monday as well. Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said ground troops were fighting rebels on the southern edge of the city, 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Aleppo.
‘‘The regime wants to recapture Maaret al-Numan because it links Damascus with Aleppo,’’ Abdul-Rahman said referring to Syria’s two largest cities. ‘‘It is a very strategic city.’’
Anti-regime activists say more than 35,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime started in March 2011. In Damascus, meanwhile, Syrian troops and rebels clashed in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, activists said.
The LCC and the Observatory said the fighting broke out after midnight, but they had no word on casualties. Palestinian refugees in Syria tried to stay on the sidelines when the uprising began.
But many Palestinian youths have joined the fight as they became enraged by mounting violence and moved by Arab Spring calls for greater freedoms.
AUSTRALIAN KILLED IN CROSSFIRE
An Australian man has died in crossfire while working at a refugee camp in Syria, the Islamic Society of Victoria say.
The family of Roger Abbas, 23, was told of the death on Monday, but it is unclear when he died.
Islamic Society of Victoria vice president Baha Yehia said the man from the north Melbourne suburb of Meadow Heights had been providing aid for about a month at a camp on the border with Turkey.
Despite the civil war being most violent near the capital Damascus, there have been several exchanges on the Syrian border, some involving Turkish forces.
Mr Yehia said Mr Abbas, a kick-boxer, had not travelled to Syria to join rebels in fighting the regime.
Several online tributes posted for Mr Abbas yesterday, including one by a man saying he was his brother and another by a female cousin, referred to him as a soldier or a fighter, but Mr Yehia said he had had no military training and had not been in Syria long enough to receive any.
‘‘Even though he was a kick-boxer, he was not an angry or fierce person,’’ Mr Yehia said.
‘‘He was gentle, and if you speak to anyone who fought him they would have seen that soft spot.
‘‘A lot of people will miss him and think it’s a tragedy, but a lot of people also think he died an honourable death while helping people out.’’
He said Mr Abbas had prayed at the Preston mosque and was the youngest sibling in a large family.
Mr Yehia said the family may still be in shock about the death.
‘‘They seem to be coping with it, it would have obviously been different if it had happened here,’’ he said.
‘‘But it’s hard to say what they’re like when they leave the mosque.’’
He said there had been several people travel to Syria from Melbourne to provide aid.
‘‘It’s very easy to get through the border to the refugee camps from the Turkish side, so there have been a few people who have taken a week or two off to help out,’’ Mr Yehia said.
‘‘The [Abbas] family were well known in the community for helping out charities and doing what they could so I guess that’s why he decided to go. That’s just who they are.
‘‘But even if you’re in the camps, it’s still very hostile over there.’’
A Facebook post from a man who said Mr Abbas was his "brother and best friend" appeared to suggest he had another brother ‘‘fighting in Syria’’. He wrote that the pair had been ‘‘helping the Syrians fight instead of sitting and watching our brothers and sisters getting killed and eating popcorn’’.
The tweet from a woman claiming to be Mr Abbas’ cousin said he had been fighting against the regime and was ‘‘a hero’’.
A friend wrote: "Brother Roger Abbas from Melbourne was martyred in Syria. May Allah accept him as a shaheed and enter him the hightest of paradise."
Promoter John Scida had booked Abbas as one of four drawcard fighters in an event in Melbourne's western suburbs almost a fortnight ago.
He said a week before the October 19 bout, he received a phone call saying that Abbas was "overseas and would not be coming back".
"I was told he was over in Syria helping with aid but I don't really know," Mr Scida said.
It is believed that Abbas had taken part in about eight fights in and around Melbourne.
"From what I saw he was quite a good fighter," Mr Scida said.
In August, popular Sydney sheikh and teacher Sheikh Mustapha Al Majzoub was killed in a rocket attack while carrying out humanitarian and charity work in conflict-torn country.
The former teacher at the Unity Grammar School in western Sydney travelled to the country on humanitarian grounds in June.
A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said there had been no contact between them and the man’s family.
‘‘We are aware of media reports that an Australian man may have been killed in Syria. The Department has no information to confirm these reports, but is seeking to investigate their veracity.
-AP and Fairfax Australia