A Syrian man helps an injured man following an airstrike in Aleppo's… (Mohammed Al-Khatieb / AFP/…)
BEIRUT — An international humanitarian group said Monday that more than 100 people have been killed in recent government airstrikes on rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo, part of an apparent escalation by both sides ahead of peace talks scheduled for next month.
Multiple videos released on the Internet by pro-opposition activists showed heavy damage to buildings in Aleppo and people digging through the rubble in apparent searches for survivors following aerial bombardment.
The allegations of mass casualties in Aleppo come as Syria’s United Nations representative, Bashar Jaafari, accused “terrorist groups” of committing “barbaric massacres” and using civilians as human shields in the city of Adra, north of Damascus, which has been the site of intense clashes between government and opposition forces.
Syrian authorities have frequently accused "terrorists," the government's term for rebels, of committing massacres and holding civilians hostage in battle zones in a bid to prevent military bombardment. In the industrial town of Adra, Syrian authorities have charged that opposition forces have committed mass executions of civilians deemed loyal to the government.
Bloody battles were also reported Tuesday in other areas of Syria, including suburban Damascus, central Homs province and southern Daraa. The fierce combat suggests that both sides are seeking to gain ground to improve their respective bargaining positions before United Nations-brokered negotiations scheduled to begin Jan. 22 in the Swiss city of Montreux.
The U.S. and Russian-sponsored talks would be the first time that high-level government and opposition representatives meet in a formal setting to discuss the possibility of a negotiated end to the 33-month conflict, which has caused tens of thousands of deaths, left much of Syria in ruins and sown instability throughout the volatile region.
Syrian state media reported Tuesday that five people were killed in opposition rocket and mortar strikes on government-held areas of Aleppo, while two people, including a 10-year-old, were killed and three others injured when a rebel mortar hit in Damascus’ Muhajerin district. Rebels have been shelling the capital’s districts from outlying positions for months, resulting in numerous casualties.
Damascus remains firmly in government hands and is heavily guarded, with much of Syria’s military might focused on securing the capital and seat of power of President Bashar Assad. Battles near the capital focus on control of the suburbs and other outlying districts.
The northern city of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub and home to more than 2 million people, has been divided for 17 months between government and rebel forces. Various rebel militias, including several linked to Al Qaeda, wield power in opposition-held zones concentrated in the eastern part of the city.
The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical care in some opposition-controlled zones of northern Syria, cited “local medical sources” Tuesday saying Syrian helicopters had been attacking rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo since Sunday with so-called barrel bombs, metal drums filled with high explosives. The group said areas targeted included a school and the Haydarya roundabout, a public transport hub, resulting in a flood of casualties that has overwhelmed ambulance and hospital services.
“Repeated attacks often lead to chaos and make it more difficult to treat the wounded, thereby increasing the number of fatalities,” Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa, Doctors Without Borders coordinator in Syria, said in a statement.
The humanitarian medical group called on “all the parties in the conflict, and the Syrian government at this particular moment, to stop targeting civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, and to stop using weapons with indiscriminate effects in urban areas, where civilians are paying the highest price.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in Britain, reported that at least 18 more people were killed Tuesday in new airstrikes on Aleppo. Opposition activists said it was the third consecutive day of bombardment.
It was unclear if the Syrian military was planning an all-out offensive in Aleppo before the Jan. 22 peace talks. The government has retaken a swath of territory east of Aleppo in recent weeks, opening a logistics corridor to the divided and battered city.
The Syrian military has made a number of battlefield gains in recent months, asserting control of much of the central highway between Damascus and Homs and encircling rebel enclaves outside the capital.
U.N. officials have called for a cease-fire before the scheduled Jan. 22 peace conference as a means of encouraging political dialogue. But there is no sign of any letup by either side in the Syrian civil war.
Besides the high toll in human life, the Syrian war has also created what aid agencies consider a humanitarian catastrophe, causing more than 2 million people to flee the country and forcing more than 6 million people to flee their homes inside Syria.
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