BEIRUT - Turkish artillery fired into Syria for the fourth day in a row on Saturday, retaliating for mortar shells that landed in Turkish territory. Rebels clashed with Syrian government troops in the border area, activists said, as fears revived that the Syrian crisis could spiral into a regional conflict.
The latest shelling comes a day after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Syria not to test Turkey's "limits and determination" and insisted that his country "was not bluffing" with its warnings.
Two mortar shells landed in rural areas near the village of Guvecci in the early morning and at midday. Both shells prompted Turkish return fire, Turkey's media reported. The first exchange happened shortly after intense fighting broke out across the border in Syria's Idlib province between Syrian rebels and the forces of President Bashar Assad's regime, the private Dogan news agency reported.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had attacked army positions in the Syrian villages of Khirbet al-Jouz and Darkoush about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Guvecci. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory's chief, said both sides were exchanging mortar fire in the province where they were located, Idlib.
The Observatory added that rebels later took over Khirbet el-Jouz and were advancing toward army positions in nearby areas. It said dozens of soldiers were either killed or wounded while three rebels died in the fighting.
At least seven rebels wounded in the fighting in Idlib province were brought across the border into Turkey for treatment, the Turkish Anadolu agency reported. The rebels told authorities there were many more wounded waiting to be brought in, the agency said.
Relations between Turkey and Syria, once strong allies, deteriorated sharply after the uprising against Assad began in March last year. Turkey became one of the harshest critics of Assad's crackdown while Syria accused Ankara of aiding rebels.
Also Saturday, Assad made a rare public appearance when he laid a wreath at the country's Unknown Soldier statue in Damascus to mark the 1973 war with Israel, also known in Syria as the October War. Syrian state television broadcast the ceremony.
The Syrian likened the current crisis to the war with Israel. Damascus denies it is facing a popular uprising, instead blaming the violence on a foreign conspiracy linked to its support for anti-Israeli groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.
"There are few differences between the current aggression and the circumstances during the October War, as Syria is facing an enemy armed with Western and Israeli weapons aiming at destroying the Syrian state and punishing its people for foiling all the hegemonic and hostile schemes planned for the region," the official news agency SANA commented.
Lebanese security officials meanwhile said Syrian troops backed by warplanes and helicopters gunships began a major attack against rebel-held areas near the Syrian town of Quseir adjoining Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The Lebanese-Syrian border has also been the site of deadly border incidents.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said no shells fell on the Lebanese side of the border on Saturday. They added that Lebanese troops were put on high alert in the border area to make sure the fighting does not reach Lebanon.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, reported intense shelling at rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo and the central city of Homs. They said the government shelling of the town of Taibeh near Homs killed at least 10 people and wounded dozens.
No one was hurt by the mortar shells that fell in Turkey. The first landed some 50 meters (yards) inside Turkish soil and some 700 meters (yards) away from the village, while the second hit 100 meters (yards) across the border and 1,500 meters (yards) from Guvecci, according to separate statements from the office of the governor for Turkey's border province of Hatay. An army unit based near Guvecci promptly responded, firing four 81mm mortars in the first instance and two shells in the second, it said.
The governor's office indicated that the Syrian mortar had landed in Turkey accidentally, saying it was believed "to be have been fired by the forces of the Syrian Arab Republic at Syrian rebel groups on the Syrian side of the border."
Villagers rushed out of homes and gathered at a safer point in the village, away from the border area, Dogan reported.
The latest tensions with Syria began Wednesday when a Syrian shell hit a home at a Turkish border town, killing two women and three children and sparked unprecedented artillery strikes by Turkey.
Turkey's parliament on Thursday also voted to allow cross border military operations in Syria, further raising tensions between the neighbors that were once close allies.
On Friday, the U.S. sided with Turkey, condemning what White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the "aggressive actions of the Syrians." Earnest said Turkey's response was appropriate and that the U.S. stands by Turkey, a NATO ally.
Saturday's shelling came as both sides appeared to be trying to defuse the situation. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Friday that Syria has pulled tanks and other military equipment away from the border.
Turkey, along with other countries siding with the rebels, is averse to intervening militarily, while Assad has also tried to avoid provocations he believes would trigger a foreign intervention.
Syria's 18-month-old conflict began with a peaceful uprising against Assad, inspired by last year's Arab Spring rebellions against authoritarian rulers. Amid an escalating regime crackdown, the rebellion gradually turned into a civil war. The regime's troops are stretched thin, enabling rebels to control large stretches of countryside in Syria's most densely populated west.
Activists say more than 30,000 people have been killed since the crisis began.
But neither side has been able to deliver a decisive blow, even though the Syrian military has superior weapons including combat aircraft.
Fraser reporter from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.