By Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT, July 5 (Reuters) - Syrian troops backed up by helicopters advanced on Thursday into the rebellious northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, activist residents said, one of many fronts being contested by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and pro-democracy rebels.
"(Syrian forces) have entered the town from the southern side. They are burning houses and farms," activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said by Skype, adding that 80 percent of the town's residents had fled.
Rebel fighters suffered heavy loses during battles late on Wednesday night in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in rural Idlib province that straddles the strategic western highway linking Damascus and Aleppo.
Activists said government forces had bombarded the town with mortar bombs on Wednesday night in advance of their assault. They gave an initial death toll of nine people but added that more people might be dead as communication with the area was difficult.
Abu Hamam, a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, said 100 armoured vehicles, tanks and missile launchers had approached the outskirts of the town at dawn and resumed their bombardment.
"Rebels have inflicted major damage on Assad's troops. But at the same time rebels have lost ground," Abu Hamam said.
Rami Abdelrahman, a human rights activist who monitors and records violence in Syria, said in a email that 97 people had been killed on Wednesday in fighting across Syria. Over the past few weeks, daily death tolls of over a hundred have become common.
Western and Arab states who want Assad to step down to help end the crisis meet in Paris on Friday as the "Friends of Syria", a group that excludes Assad's main backer, Russia, and fellow U.N. Security Council veto-holder China.
Diplomatic efforts by a divided international community have so far been ineffective in stopping the violence.
Residents said mortar bombs were exploding in central districts of Homs, Syria's third largest city, where whole neighbourhoods have been destroyed. Despite repeated assaults by Assad's forces, rebels have still managed to keep a foothold.
A resident of the battered Khalidiya district in Homs said that the city was surrounded by artillery and troops.
"The regime has imposed a crippling siege in most of the anti-government areas of Homs," Saif al-Arabi said by Skype. "We can't get the wounded out."
A popular revolt, which started with peaceful pro-democracy protests in March 2011, has turned into a virtual civil war as the government's crackdown has triggered an armed uprising.
Now Assad is fighting rebels on the outskirts of the capital. Opposition activists in the town of Harasta, just a few miles from central Damascus, reported heavy artillery fire for government forces on Thursday morning.
Opposition leaders and Western governments say over 15,000 people have been killed in the uprising. The government says "terrorist gangs" steered from abroad have killed several thousand troops and police. (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Hatay, Turkey; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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