BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — Syria's army battered Aleppo with fierce shelling on Thursday and lost several of its soldiers as Turkish forces hammered their positions for a second day in retaliation for a deadly cross-border bombing.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad also suffered a setback when rebels seeking to overthrow his regime killed 21 members of the elite Republican Guard in Damascus province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said "several" Syrian soldiers were killed when Turkish troops shelled their post, but security and diplomatic sources said the Turks had halted fire for the time being.
Syria's military turned its artillery on the provinces of Deir Ezzor in the northeast, Homs in central Syria and Idlib in the far northwest, said the Britain-based group.
The shelling of Aleppo came a day after a string of explosions in the heart of the northern city killed 48 people, in an attack claimed by the shadowy Islamist group Al-Nusra Front.
State television later reported that regime forces had taken control of the Sleiman al-Halabi district of Aleppo from rebels "after cleaning it of armed terrorist groups".
In the Aleppo neighbourhood of Salaheddin, at least six soldiers were killed when rebels attacked their checkpoint, the Observatory said.
Another five died and 16 were wounded in a similar attack by the rebels in Quneitra province, near Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights, the group added.
The Observatory said the toll of Republican Guards killed in the town of Qudsaya, west of Damascus, may rise given the ferocity of the violence.
"The rebels likely used a small explosive device, but it was placed near the Republican Guards' living quarters in Qudsaya," said its director Rami Abdel Rahman, who added that clashes persisted after the blast.
The attack occurred a day after the army launched a major offensive on Qudsaya and a neighbouring locality, the Observatory and AFP journalists said.
Also in Zabadani, northwest of Damascus, the army and rebels clashed, said the Observatory.
"The quality of operations staged by the rebels is improving," said Abdel Rahman. "This is especially noticeable in Damascus province."
Amid the violence, regime forces carried out a large number of arrests in Qudsaya, the Observatory said.
At least 123 people were killed across Syria yesterday 56 civilians, 46 soldiers and 21 rebels, according to an updated Observatory toll.
More than 31,000 people have been killed since the outbreak in March last year of an anti-regime revolt, which began as peaceful protests for reform but morphed into an armed insurgency when demonstrations were brutally crushed.
Most rebels, like the population, are Sunni in a country dominated by a minority Alawite regime.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International called on the Syrian authorities to either charge or release two human rights activists detained in Damascus earlier in the week.
Lawyer Khalil al-Maatouq and his colleague Mohammed Thatha were arrested while on their way to work on Tuesday, said their employer, the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research.
"The families of these men have a right to know what has happened to them," said Ann Harrison, deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme.