Syrian rebels captured a strategic neighbourhood near Aleppo's international airport on Saturday, putting opposition fighters in control of a key road that the regime has used to ferry supplies and reinforcements to soldiersfighting in the embattled northern city, rebel sources and activists said.
Elsewhere in the nation, 101 people were killed as fighting continued unabated, according to activists.
Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels have been engaged in a deadly stalemate in Aleppo, Syria's largest urban centre and main commercial hub, since an opposition assault last summer. Seven months later, the rebels hold large parts of the city and its outskirts, including several army bases, but they have been unable to overcome the regime's far superior firepower.
The capturing of the Sheikh Said neighbourhood, south-east of Aleppo, is a significant blow to regime forces because the area includes a major road, linking the northern city with the airport. The army has used the road to supply troops.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels captured the area on Saturday after several days of fierce battles with Assad's troops. Rebels have previously established enclaves outside Syria's major cities to threaten the regime, including near the capital, Damascus, but they were later attacked by Assad's fighter jets and artillery.
In an effort to reverse rebels' advance in Aleppo, regime's war planes carried out several airstrikes on Sheik Said, the Observatory said. There were no reports of casualties from the bombing.
In the north, regime war planes hit rebel-held areas in Idlib province as troops fought rebels in Deir Ezzor in the east, an oil-rich area along Syria's border with Iraq, the Observatory said. Fighting also raged in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, in the restive suburbs of Damascus that were also hit by air strikes and in the southern province of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising.
Activists also said that the Free Syrian Army had captivated General Ahmed Taleb [ex-deputy chief of staff in the Syrian Army] and his escort in Damascus.
On the political side, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that he wants to keep in regular contact with Syria's opposition after holding his first direct talks with the coalition's leader, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, Russian news agencies reported.
"I reminded Khatib that after the creation of the [Syrian National] Coalition and the appointment of their leader, we immediately demonstrated our interest in maintaining regular contact," Lavrov said after the meeting on the sidelines of an international security conference in Munich, Germany. "We will make that happen," he added.
Earlier on Saturday, Lavrov held separate talks with US Vice-President Joe Biden and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi amid strong disagreement between Moscow and Washington about ways to end the Syrian conflict.
Khatib, elected as the head of the coalition late last year, made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that his group was ready for dialogue with the Damascus regime under certain conditions. He renewed the proposal in Munich, while rejecting the presence of leaders he said had "blood on their hands."
Lavrov said Moscow "welcomed" the initiative, adding: "If we take into account the fact that the coalition was founded on the refusal to engage in a dialogue with the regime, it's a very important step."
The minister said it meant that "realism prevails," adding that "thinking is headed in the right direction."
Russia's top diplomat also said Moscow shared Washington's concern about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria but considered the situation to be safe at this stage.
"We coordinate this issue [chemical weapons] with the Americans on a daily basis. We have reliable information that for now, the Syrian government has control of the chemical weapons, that the situation is safe," Lavrov said in his address to the conference.
"I think that this [use of chemical weapons] is a 'red line' for everyone. We are categorically against the use of any arms," he said.
US Vice-President Joe Biden asserted that his country is pushing to help strengthen the opposition, insisting Syria's President Bashar Assad was a "tyrant" and must go.
Biden said it was "no secret" that Moscow and Washington have "serious differences" on issues like Syria, as fears mount that its 22-month conflict will draw in neighbouring states. "We can all agree on the increasingly desperate plight of the Syrian people and the responsibility of the international community to address that plight," he added.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that Washington is also concerned that "chaos" in Syria could allow Hezbollah to obtain sophisticated weaponry.
Meanwhile, a senior Iranian security official visiting Damascus on Saturday pledged Tehran's full support for the Syrian regime, its close ally, Syrian state television said. "We will give all our support so that Syria remains firm and able to face all the arrogant [western] conspiracies," said Saeed Jalili, who heads the Supreme National Security Council.
"The Israeli aggression and arrogant international forces have tried to take revenge by attacking the resisting Syrian people," said Jalili, who said Israel and the west had turned "desperate."
Jalili was referring to an alleged Israeli air strike on Wednesday that a US official said hit a military complex and missiles near the Syrian capital.
The Syrian army said the raid, which the Jewish state has not confirmed or denied, targeted a military research centre located between Damascus and the Lebanese border.
On Thursday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian warned that the attack would "have grave consequences."