By the CNN Wire Staff - Leaders of Syrian rebel forces ordered their fighters to attack hundreds of government troops heading toward Aleppo, the country's largest city, a Free Syrian Army official told CNN Wednesday.
The Syrian regime withdrew about 2,000 fully equipped troops, along with their tanks and artillery, from Idlib and sent them to Aleppo, about 40 miles away, the official said.
As the commercial hub of Syria, Aleppo is a crucial city in the country's 16-month conflict. If rebels eventually gain control of the city it would mark a pivotal point in the Syrian crisis and deal a heavy blow to President Bashar al-Assad's financial ties.
Across Syria at least 80 people, including nine children, were killed in fresh violence Wednesday, opposition activists said. The dead included 23 people in Damascus and its suburbs and 10 in Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
Rebel forces have been trying to wrest control of Aleppo from government forces.
"There is random shelling of the eastern portion of the city as the Syrian Army is trying to force out the FSA (Free Syrian Army). They are hitting civilian homes over and over," one activist told CNN via Skype Tuesday.
Syrian state TV reported a crackdown on Aleppo and Qamechli and the capture of "terrorists" in Lattakia. The regime has consistently blamed the violence on armed terrorist groups.
CNN's Ivan Watson, who is inside Syria, said he had noticed the rebels had become better armed in the past few months. While they only had shotguns at one point, they now have rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, he said.
The increased firepower has helped the rebels successfully attack armored vehicles and forced some Syrian forces to resupply by helicopter.
Watson said that in the village he was in, hundreds of rebels had loaded up with ammunition this week and headed to fight in Aleppo.
Both Aleppo and the capital city of Damascus have been al-Assad strongholds.
On Tuesday, state-run media reported that regime troops had regained control of neighborhoods in Damascus, where rebels fought al-Assad's forces last week.
Alex Thomson, a journalist for CNN British affiliate ITN, confirmed the developments from Damascus.
"It is quite clear that the regime has just had, in Damascus, the biggest boost to its morale in 16 months of violent civil war," Thomson wrote. "This is a comprehensive victory of the Assad regime in its own backyard and capital."
Meanwhile, half the members of the United Nations observer mission in Syria have left the country as it starts what is set to be its final 30-day mandate, the U.N.'s chief peacekeeper Herve Ladsous said Wednesday in Damascus.
As a result, "the mission operates on a reduced basis, reduced in numbers, reduced in team sites in the provinces and does what it can," Ladsous said.
A U.N. Security Council resolution passed Friday highlighted that for the body to reconsider its decision to renew the observers' mandate for a final 30-day period "there needs to be very specific and sustainable progress on the level of violence, which should decrease substantially, and on the use of heavy weapons," he said.
Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, who has taken over the leadership of the mission, said every opportunity would be taken to "alleviate the suffering" of the Syrian people.
In what may be a blow to the regime, the opposition Syrian National Council said Wednesday that two senior Syrian diplomats were the latest to defect.
One is the Syrian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdullatif Al Dabbagh, SNC spokesman George Sabra said.
The second is Al Dabbagh's wife, who is also the Syrian envoy to Cyprus, Lamia Al Harriri. She defected to Qatar, SNC member Najy Tayyarah told CNN. She is also the niece of Syrian Vice President Farouq Al Sharea.
Al Dabbagh had helped a lot of Syrians in need, Tayyarah said from Istanbul.
Earlier, Turkey's customs and trade minister said "all border gates with Syria will be closed" Wednesday, Turkish state-run TV reported. A government statement was expected later in the day.
Thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey in recent months to escape violence in their country, but the refugees generally cross from fields through the border fence, not the border gates.
The chaos in Syria took an ominous turn this week after a Syrian official discussed his country's weapons of mass destruction.
Jihad Makdissi, Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters Monday that "any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstances, no matter how the crisis would evolve.
"All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army," Makdissi added. He further said that the "weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic."
Russia said Syria had ratified