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Syrian warplanes have killed more than 300 people, including 87 children, in a nine-day bombing campaign against rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo, opposition activists said Monday.
“From December 15 to 22, 301 people have been killed, including 87 children, 30 women and 30 rebels,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists and witnesses on the ground to track the civil war.
Activists raised to 65 the death toll from airstrikes around a market area in the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday.
In an amateur video posted online, a man held up to the camera a severed foot from the air raids, while crowds scrambled among rubble, hoarsely shouting "God is Great!" as they came across corpses. Flames and dust from the smashed building and cars darkened the sky. One man rhythmically smashed a hammer against a jammed door of a vehicle containing charred bodies.
The Observatory said mostly civilians were killed when government helicopters dumped explosives-laden "barrel bombs" around the Masaken Hanano market Sunday, one of the worst bombings in the Syrian military’s nine-day Aleppo offensive.
The barrel bombs – crude devices filled with explosives and fuel – are wildly inaccurate and cause massive damage.
Opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accuse his forces of dropping the barrel bombs on rebel-held areas in an effort to demoralize their supporters and turn them against anti-government forces.
A security source told news agency Agence France-Presse on Monday that the army had adopted the tactic because of a lack of ground forces, and argued that the heavy civilian toll was because the rebels were in residential areas.
Aleppo has been split between opposition and government forces since a massive rebel assault in the summer of 2012.
The timing of the assault that began Dec. 15 — a month ahead of planned peace talks in Switzerland — suggested that Assad could be trying to strengthen his position and expose the opposition's weaknesses before sitting down at the negotiating table.
Hassoun Abu Faisal, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center, said the barrel bombs destroyed vehicles lining a main road, crushed a two-story building and left a crater where part of the market had been.
"The medics say they are removing people in parts; they aren't sure how many there are," he said.
Human rights groups warn that even if Syrian forces are targeting rebels with the bombs, they often explode in residential areas and kill civilians.
Syrian officials have not commented on the air raids in Aleppo.
In central Syria, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a primary school in the predominantly Shia town of Umm al-Amed in Homs province, killing at least 12 people, half of them children, the Observatory said Sunday. Syrian state media said eight people were killed and 34 wounded, mostly children. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting tolls.
The bombing underscores the increasingly sectarian lines being drawn in Syria's civil war.
Syria's rebels are mainly Sunni, with hard-line brigades emerging as the most powerful fighting groups. Shia and other Syrian minority groups have either stayed neutral or sided with Assad, an Alawite, fearing for their future should the rebels prevail. Groups on both sides have targeted civilians.
Also Sunday, Syrian military aircraft bombed Bab al-Hawa, a border crossing to Turkey, according to a private Turkish news agency, Dogan, and the Aleppo Media Center and the Local Coordinating Committees, two activist networks.
Dogan reported that bombs hit the Syrian side of the crossing, killing or wounding several people, and that several ambulances from the Turkish town of Reyhanli were heading to the border gate to carry the wounded to hospitals. It was not immediately clear why the area was targeted.
Syria's civil war, now into its third year, has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists. Millions have fled their homes because of the fighting.