Syrian planes pound Aleppo for fourth straight day
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian warplanes dumped explosive-laden barrel bombs over opposition-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo on Wednesday, the fourth day of a relentless offensive to drive rebels out of the contested city, activists said.
The assault has killed more than 165 people in the first three days, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group.
The intensity of the campaign suggests that President Bashar Assad's government is trying to crush opposition in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial hub, ahead of an international peace conference scheduled for late January in Switzerland.
Aleppo has been a major front in Syria's civil war since the rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012, and the city has since been carved into opposition- and government-held areas.
Some of the barrels dumped Wednesday exploded near a school and a student dormitory, said Aleppo-based activist Abu al-Hassan Marea. He said the military aircraft unloaded their volatile cargo over four city neighborhoods. At least two people were killed in one Aleppo neighborhood, Masaken Hanano, according to Marea and the Observatory.
Other activist groups, such as the Local Coordinating Committees and the Aleppo Media Center, also reported the bombing. No one immediately had the full number of casualties inflicted in Wednesday's bombing.
Marea told The Associated Press over Skype that one barrel struck near the Ahmad al-Qassar school, but that the bombing was so intense he couldn't go out to check for casualties.
War-weary activists in Aleppo say the four-day offensive has been the most intense they've seen in the city since the beginning of the uprising against Assad in March 2011.
The Syrian government frequently uses barrel bombs, which contain hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of explosives and cause massive damage on impact. They appear to be simply pushed from planes to fall randomly over residential areas, and activists describe them as "barrels of blood" because of their devastating effect.
The international aid group Doctors Without Borders warned on Tuesday that Aleppo hospitals have been overwhelmed with casualties.
In a reflection of Aleppo's grim reality, Marea said some of the residents have gotten used to the bombing.
On Tuesday, some 100 meters (yards) from a bombing site, "people were buying and selling like nothing had happened," he said.
Another Aleppo-based activist, Mohammed Hussein said residents used to flee from where they thought the bombs would land. "Now they just watch. If it seems to be heading in their direction, they hide - if they have time," Hussein told the AP, also on Skype.
Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Council, accused the international community on Tuesday of "failing to take any serious position that would guarantee a stop to the bloodbath" in Aleppo ahead of the peace talks.
The country's conflict, now in its third year, appears to have escalated in recent weeks as both sides maneuver ahead of next month's planned peace talks and ignore calls for a cease-fire.
The U.S. and Russian-brokered peace conference between Assad's government and the Syrian opposition is scheduled to begin in January in the Swiss city of Montreux. Plans are underway to organize a one-day meeting of foreign ministers in the city ahead of the Syrian talks.
The civil war has ripped Syria apart. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and nearly 9 million Syrians have been uprooted from their homes - some 40 percent of the country's prewar population of 23 million. They include some 2.3 million who have fled to neighboring countries, mostly Lebanon.
Underscoring the perilous conditions many refugees face, Lebanese state media and a municipal official said that a roof collapse in eastern Lebanon killed two Syrian refugee children early Wednesday.
The family of the children, aged nine and three, was renting a substandard home in the town of Hazarta, said official Hussein Abu Hamdan.
Many of the impoverished Syrians have crowded into shacks, tents and unfinished structures that offer meager shelter from the bitter cold, with no running water or electricity.
Meanwhile, a Russian cargo plane landed in Beirut on Wednesday with emergency aid for Syrian refugees. Moscow said it was the fifth planeload of aid from the Russian government.