DAMASCUS (AFP) - Rebels downed a helicopter in fierce fighting on Wednesday with troops seeking to retake a key Syrian town, a watchdog said, as peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned the conflict risks setting the region ablaze.

The battle for the Damascus-Aleppo highway raged around the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan even as Brahimi appeared to have won tentative support for a ceasefire.

The UN and Arab League envoy warned of the conflict spreading as he visited neighbouring Lebanon, the latest leg of a Middle East tour aimed at ending more than 19 months of bloodshed.

“This crisis cannot remain confined within Syrian territory,” the veteran troubleshooter told reporters. “Either it is solved, or it gets worse... and sets (the region) ablaze.”

He said a truce for the four-day Eidul Azha holiday starting on October 26 would be “a microscopic step on the road to solving the Syria crisis.”

“The Syrian people, on both sides, are burying some 100 people a day,” said Brahimi.

“Can we not ask that this toll falls for this holiday? This will not be a happy holiday for the Syrians, but we should at least strive to make it less sad. “If the Syrian government accepts, and I understand there is hope, and if the opposition accepts,” a truce would be a step “towards a more global ceasefire.”

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, who met Brahimi on Tuesday, backed his call for an Eid truce, also asking for international support. Pope Benedict XVI has arranged a high-profile Vatican visit to Syria likely to take place next week.

“We cannot be mere spectators of a tragedy such as the one that is unfolding in Syria,” Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, the pope’s right-hand man, said in announcing the move. The conflict began in March 2011 with pro-reform protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.

It has since become a civil war pitting mainly Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime dominated by his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

At times it has spilled over into neighbouring nations.

Turkey-Syria tensions have soared, with Ankara taking an increasingly strident line since a shell fired from inside Syria killed five Turks on October 3.

Brahimi’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told AFP the envoy would “soon go to Damascus.” His tour has already taken him to Sunni-ruled Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as Shiite-led Iran and Iraq.

Damascus says it is ready to discuss the truce proposal with Brahimi while the exiled opposition says it would welcome any ceasefire but insists the ball is in the government’s court.

“The Syrian side is interested in exploring this option and we are looking forward to talking to Mr Brahimi,” foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Maqdisi told AFP. The opposition Syrian National Council said it expected the rebel Free Syrian Army to reciprocate any halt to the violence, but the government had to act first. “We would welcome any halt to the killings but we think the appeal needs to be addressed first to the Syrian regime, which has not stopped bombarding Syrian towns and villages,” SNC leader Abdel Basset Sayda told AFP. On the battlefront, rebels shot down a helicopter gunship as the army fought to recapture the strategic northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Amateur video posted on YouTube showed a helicopter spiralling downwards and then exploding, as onlookers cried: “Allahu akbar (God is greatest)!” Warplanes targeted a rebel blockade of a highway in Idlib province which has halted regime efforts to reinforce Aleppo, the theatre of intense fighting for three months.

The early morning air raids targeted Maaret al-Numan and nearby villages, which fell to the rebels a week ago as they pushed to create a “buffer zone” abutting Turkey, the Observatory said. However, analysts say regime air supremacy is no longer decisive, as multiple fronts opening countrywide stretch its capabilities thin.

The fighting flared as rebels attacked a convoy of tanks in the town of Maarhtat as it headed for Wadi Deif army base, the area’s largest. Violence across Syria killed at least 79 people on Wednesday, according to an updated Observatory toll.

The Observatory - which relies on activists, medics and lawyers for its information - says some 33,000 people have been killed in the uprising, among them 2,300 children.