Syrian forces have launched new air strikes and shelled rebel strongholds in several key cities, according to observers.

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The intensified fighting on Saturday, particularly in and around the key northern hub of Aleppo, has sent thousands more Syrians fleeing into neighbouring countries.

The UN said on Friday that veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi would take over as international envoy from Kofi Annan, who quit this month after the failure of his peace plan.

Warplanes bombed the town of Aazaz on Friday, just days after an air strike that flattened homes and killed at least 40 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Syrian forces also bombarded several areas of Aleppo, the northern commercial hub that has emerged as the main battleground as it is vital for control of routes to Turkey – the rear base for the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Fighting was reported in several districts of the city, the Observatory said. Regime forces also pounded rebel areas of the central city of Homs and the southern city of Herak.

It said a total of 129 people were killed on Friday.

The observatory said dozens of bodies had been found dumped in several areas of Damascus province.

Opposition factions had reported that another 65 bodies had been found dumped on a rubbish tip in a town near Damascus on Thursday.

It is impossible to independently verify such claims as journalists are unable to report freely in Syria.

In a damning report this week, a UN panel said government forces and their militia allies had committed crimes against humanity including murder and torture. It also accused the rebels of war crimes, but to a lesser extent.

The UN said on Friday the number of refugees had increased to 170,000, many of them fleeing to Turkey.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to be “smashed fast” as he visited the largest of the refugee camps in Turkey.

“After hearing the refugees and their account of the massacres of the regime, Mr Bashar al-Assad doesn’t deserve to be on this earth,” Fabius said.

Fabius also said he expected more “spectacular defections” soon.