BEIRUT - An explosion targeting Syrian regime forces killed at least three people in northern Syria on Wednesday - and possibly up to 18 - amid rising violence ahead of a visit by the new U.N.-Arab League envoy who is trying to end the country's civil war.
Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to halt the bloodshed in Syria, but the new international envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, will be in Syria on Thursday for talks with Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, according to ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Brahimi also will meet with President Bashar Assad during the trip to Damascus.
There were conflicting accounts of the nature of Wednesday's blast and the number of casualties. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement that a car bomb exploded, and that 18 security agents were killed.
The Observatory said dozens of rebels attacked the post in the wake of the blast in the Idlib province town of Saraqeb.
But a government official told The Associated Press that a suicide attacker blew himself up in Saraqeb, killing two policemen and a civilian. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
An activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, also said the blast was carried out by a suicide bomber driving a car.
Syria restricts media access, making it difficult to independently verify such accounts.
Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, have made inroads in Syria as violence has engulfed the country. But the main fighting force looking to oust Assad is the Free Syrian Army, a group made up largely of defected Syrian soldiers.
The attack came after a blast Sunday in the northern city of Aleppo destroyed parts of two hospitals where soldiers are usually treated. State media said 30 civilians were killed and 64 wounded in the Aleppo bombing.
Elsewhere, activists reported heavy fighting between government troops and rebels in Syria's largest city of Aleppo, much of it near the government-held Aleppo International Airport. Activist Mohammed al-Hassan, who is based in the city, said the airport, which includes a military base, is widely used by the regime to bomb rebel-held areas in Aleppo.
"Fierce battles are taking place as aircraft zoom overhead," al-Hassan said.
The state-run news agency, SANA, said troops repelled an attempt Wednesday by rebels to enter Aleppo and killed and wounded "a large number of them."
The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said at least 11 bodies were found in the central town of Halfaya in Hama province. They said the bodies were found in fields a day after government troops stormed the town.
To the east, the LCC said Syrian warplanes attacked the village of Souseh near the border with Iraq, killing at least nine people.
Activists also reported violence in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the southern province of Daraa and the central region of Homs.
Activists say that more than 23,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis began in March last year. Syria's uprising began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime, but has since morphed into a civil war in the face of a brutal government crackdown.
The violence has force nearly 300,000 Syrians to flee the country, and the vast majority of them have sought refuge in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
On Wednesday, actress Angelina Jolie met with Syrian refugees in Lebanon a day after visiting a refugee camp in Jordan. Jolie, who came along with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, held talks with Lebanese Prime Minster Najib Mikati.
There are more than 65,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.