Syrian troops launched raids on several rebel towns on Saturday that left at least 20 people dead after raging overnight firefights with army deserters, activists and monitors said.
The fiercest assault targeted Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib which was stormed by troops backed by 26 tanks that "took up position to split the town in two," activist Nureddin al-Abdo told AFP.
Residents cowered indoors as explosions rattled Saraqeb while troops swooped to make arrests, he said from the town where there is a considerable rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) presence.
Abdo said regime forces had already launched several search and arrest forays into Saraqeb.
At least one civilian was killed by gunfire in Saraqeb where three soldiers also died, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A woman was also killed elsewhere in the province.
The army also rained mortars and rockets on several neighbourhoods of the central city of Homs killing seven civilians, the Observatory said, adding that three more died in the nearby town of Qusayr.
The town of Qalaat al-Madiq was also pounded with mortar fire by the army which has been trying to seize the central Hama province town for the past two weeks, the Observatory added.
Security forces also shot dead a civilian at Khorbet Ghazaleh in southern Daraa province, the Britain-based Observatory said, adding that a soldier was killed by gunfire at a checkpoint in the province.
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It was in Daraa that the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad first broke out in mid-March last year. Since then, at least 9,100 people have been killed, according to estimates by monitors.
The regime blames the violence on "armed terrorist groups."
Three soldiers were also killed on Saturday in an ambush by rebel fighters in the northeastern Hassaka province.
Meanwhile, "very violent" clashes rocked the Damascus area overnight, activist Mohammed al-Shami told AFP.
He reported explosions and small arms fire across a large part of Damascus province and in districts of the city itself, as anti-regime protests were staged in Douma and Artuz close to the capital.
The Observatory on Saturday reported snipers and heavy armour in Douma.
A huge night-time demonstration also took place in the Kfar Sousa district of Damascus, where eight people were wounded on Friday when security forces opened fire to disperse protesters, videos posted on YouTube showed.
Videos posted by activists also featured overnight protests in several districts of Syria's second city Aleppo.
Shami said the security services and Shabiha regime militiamen also launched search and arrest operations in the Damascus district of Al-Asalli.