Syrian troops have been battling for a key rebel-held town on the third anniversary of the country's civil war. Relief agencies are calling for an end to the conflict, which they warn is creating a "lost" generation.
Soldiers from Syria's army were on Saturday advancing on the key rebel-held town of Yabroud, near the border with Lebanon, north of Damascus. Capturing the town, the last opposition stronghold in the province, would help the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cut off rebel supply lines.
A military source told Reuters news agency that Syria's army had taken a series of peaks and "fastened pincers around Yabroud."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said Syria's air force had conducted at least 15 raids on the town and that there was heavy fighting on the town's outskirts.
Assad's forces are reported to be regaining ground in the country's civil conflict, with the Syrian opposition on Saturday calling on its allies to heavily arm rebel forces.
"We renew our demand for friends of the Syrian people to keep their promises of providing sophisticated weapons," Ahmed al-Jarba, president of the West-backed Syrian National Coalition, said in Istanbul.
Internationally-brokered peace talks between Syria's government and increasingly divided opposition have so far failed to find a political solution to the crisis, which began in March 2011 after peaceful public protests against the Assad regime evolved into civil war. More than 140,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million people made refugees abroad as the conflict has become increasingly violent and sectarian.
"There is no military solution to this war. It is clear that nobody is winning; everybody is losing," Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said.
With no end in sight to the fighting, relief agencies used Saturday's anniversary to warn of the impacts of the continued violence and displacement on Syria's children.
"The children of Syria cannot, and must not, face another year of this horror - the violence and cruelty that has scarred their lives for three long years," UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said.
Two UN agencies and three NGOs reported that a total of 1.2 million Syrian children were now living as refugees in host countries and 37,000 babies had been born as refugees since 2011.
The groups said almost 3 million Syrian children were not attending school on a regular basis and a fifth of the country's schools had been destroyed, damaged or converted to military uses. The aid groups warned this collapse of the education system threatened Syria's stability and prosperity long-term.
"A generation is at risk of being lost forever," the groups said.
se/tj (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)