BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels killed 28 soldiers in attacks on military checkpoints in northern Idlib province on Thursday, just hours after a wave of bombings hit Damascus and its outskirts, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels attacked three military checkpoints near the town of Saraqeb, killing the troops. Five rebels also died in gun battles following the attacks, according to the Observatory, which relies on reports from activists on the ground.
There was no official confirmation of the deaths from the authorities.
The relentless fighting in Syria has killed more than 36,000 people according to activists since March 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began. It started as peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but quickly morphed into a bloody civil war.
The rebels fighting to topple Assad often complain they are outgunned by the military, which has in recent days intensified airstrikes on opposition strongholds following the failure of a U.N.-backed truce over a four-day holiday weekend that never took hold.
On Wednesday alone, activists said more than 100 were killed nationwide in airstrikes, artillery shelling and fighting. Much of the violence took place in rebellious suburbs of the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a major front in the 19-month conflict.
In Damascus, "terrorists detonated" three bombs in Al-Mazzeh district late Wednesday night, targeting a mosque, a sports club and a shop, state-run news agency SANA said. One person was killed in the explosion near the district's Al-Houda mosque, and two were wounded, the agency reported Thursday. Six people, including a child, were injured in the two other explosions, according to the report.
The government refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad as terrorists and accuses them and opposition supporters of being part of a foreign plot to destroy Syria.
Also according to SANA, authorities raised the death toll from another bombing Wednesday evening in a Damascus suburb that houses a Shiite Muslim shrine to 12, after one more victim died of wounds.
Many Syrians, particularly those in Damascus where fighting and demonstrations have been relatively light, fear that Islamic extremists that have fought alongside rebel units may be targeting the capital more frequently to help drive Assad out of power.
Eyewitnesses of Wednesday's blast said the assailants picked random spots to detonate explosives and stoke panic among residents.
"There was a very loud bang and then I saw the kiosk, which sold watches, engulfed in flames," said Abu Rami, a 44-year-old civil servant and resident of Al-Mazzeh area. Abu Rami, who only gave his nickname for fear of reprisals, said security forces arrived in the area minutes after the explosion and sealed it off.
Another resident in the area where the explosions occurred said security must have been compromised as the district is patrolled by troops.
"I find it strange that three explosions occurred in a residential area that is completely under the control of Syrian security forces," said the shop owner, who only gave his first name, Wael. "There are security checkpoints at the entrances and exits to al-Mazzeh, it's very strange."
Elsewhere in the country, 116 people were killed on Wednesday, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory. Of those, 41 people were killed in Aleppo and 35 died in heavy fighting in the suburbs of Damascus, he said.
Last week, more than 500 people were killed in fighting during what was supposed to be a four-day truce timed to coincide with a major Muslim holiday. The failure to at least temporarily halt fighting has left the international community at a loss about how to stop the war.
On Thursday, China called for a phased-in cease-fire and negotiations on a gradual political transition to end the bloodshed.
The four-point proposal issued by the Foreign Ministry stopped short of calling for Assad's ouster and omitted mention of any measures to compel compliance. Alongside Russia, China has steadfastly blocked any outside intervention that could force Assad from power.
The proposal called on the international community to support the work of the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who pushed for the failed cease-fire.