DAMASCUS — Syrian troops on Sunday fought rebel fighters in the country's two main cities Damascus and Aleppo, as Iran acknowledged for the first time it has elite forces present in Syria and Lebanon as "counsellors."
The relentless violence affected the start on Sunday of the educational year, with activists saying few schools opened in flashpoint areas, including Aleppo, and the UN reporting more than than 2,000 schools damaged or destroyed countrywide since the uprising began 18 months ago.
Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to calls for an end to the bloodletting, urging Arab countries to propose workable solutions to the conflict, while celebrating mass in neighbouring Lebanon.
Violence that raged from early Sunday killed another 20 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that 115 had died the previous day.
Troops pounded districts in Damascus, Aleppo in the north, Daraa in the south, Hama and Homs in the centre and Deir Ezzor in the east with aerial bombardments and heavy artillery, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Among those who died were four men killed in shelling of the rebel southern Damascus suburb of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and seven others when a bus was bombed in Daraa province, cradle of 18 months of insurgency against the central government.
A child and a media activist meanwhile were killed in Aleppo, where the army and rebels have fought fierce battles since July to control Syria's second city and commercial hub.
In a rare news conference, the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards said in Tehran on Sunday that members of his elite special operations unit, the Quds Force, are present in Syria and Lebanon.
He insisted however that they were only there to provide "counsel."
"A number of Quds Force members are present in Syria and Lebanon... we provide (these countries) with counsel and advice, and transfer experience to them," Guards commander Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari said.
"But it does not mean that we have a military presence there," he added.
Several Western and Arab countries accuse Iran of giving military aid to President Bashar al-Assad's regime as the Syria conflict becomes increasingly bloody.
The latest violence comes as UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi prepared Sunday to meet with leaders of the opposition tolerated by the government, anti-regime forces said.
The talks come after he met Assad on Saturday and warned that the conflict threatens both the region and the world at large, on his first visit to Damascus since taking over as envoy from ex-UN chief Kofi Annan earlier this month.
"The crisis is dangerous and getting worse, and it is a threat to the Syrian people, the region and the world," said Brahimi, a veteran troubleshooter and 78-year-old Algerian diplomat.
He stressed, however, that he currently has "no plan" to tackle the thorny mission which Annan quit after a hard-sought peace deal he had brokered became a dead letter.
Assad, meanwhile, insisted that dialogue between Syrians was the key to a solution and urged foreign countries to stop supplying arms to his foes.
"The success of political action is dependent on putting pressure on the countries that finance and train the terrorists, and which bring weapons into Syria, until they stop doing so," Assad said.
As fighting raged in Damascus and Aleppo, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday celebrated mass in neighbouring Lebanon, praying that leaders in the Middle East work toward peace and reconciliation.
"In a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary," Benedict said to an estimated 350,000 faithful at open-air mass in Beirut.
"May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence," the pope said.
He also appealed to Arab countries that, "as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person."
Syrian's violence has spilled over into Lebanon where supporters and opponents of the Damascus regime have squared off in often deadly clashes over the past months.
On Saturday the 85-year-old pontiff had words of praise for young Syrians, saying: "I want to tell you how much I admire your courage."
Despite the disruption to schooling in Aleppo and other flashpoint areas, Syrian state media on Sunday announced that "more than five million students and 385,000 teachers and employees" went back to school.
"Nine hundreds schools are open in the capital," the head of the Damascus prefecture Ammar Qaloo said, but added that 13 schools are being used as shelters for civilians displaced by the violence.
A UNICEF spokeswoman, Marixie Mercado, described the return to school as an "immense challenge."
"For children, being back at school is one of the most effective ways of giving them a sense of stability, hope and normality," said Mercado.
"It really is a hugely important way of enabling children who have gone through a nightmare to see that they do have a future."
The death toll from 18 months into the Syrian conflict has risen to more than 27,000 people, according to the Observatory, which relies on activist accounts from the ground. The United Nations puts the toll at 20,000.