Maaret Al Numan, Syria: Syrian jets bombarded a rebel town on Thursday on the second day of an assault in which the regime is accused of using cluster bombs, hours before peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi flies in to Damascus to press for a truce.
Brahimi is aiming to secure a ceasefire during a four-day holiday from October 26, hoping it will bring a longer halt to the bloodletting in the 19-month conflict that has already killed more than 34,000 people.
Violence has persisted on the ground, however, with loyalists of President Bashar Al Assad and rebels locked in an all-out battle for the northwestern town of Maaret Al Numan on the highway linking Syria’s two biggest cities.
Al Assad’s forces, who hold air supremacy, again battered the town a day after strikes on a residential area killed dozens, nearly half of them children, rescuers told an AFP reporter at the scene.
The military wants to regain control of the highway to resupply units under fire in the northern metropolis of Aleppo for the past three months, and assist 250 troops besieged in their Wadi Deif base.
Fighter jets overflew at high altitude before nosediving and striking targets on the town’s outskirts, as helicopter gunships buzzed the area, the correspondent said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said targets included rebels camped near Wadi Deif, which is also a major storage facility for heavy armour and fuel.
“Military aircraft dropped bombs that targeted rebels camped near [the base at] Wadi Deif,” concentrating their firepower on the villages of Talmans and Maashemsha, it said.
Rebels showed AFP debris from cluster bombs which they accused the air force of dropping on residential areas and the front lines, as well as dozens of other bomblets that failed to explode on impact.
The bomblets bear the Cyrillic script on their tail fins, suggesting they could have been made in Russia — a key Damascus ally.
Human Rights Watch has accused Syria of using cluster bombs, a charge denied by the military which insists it does not possess such devices.
Syria has not ratified an international convention banning the weapon which can carry up to 650 submunitions.
Non-governmental groups say up to 40 percent of the bomblets fail to explode and that 98 per cent of victims are civilians, including children who mistake them for toys.
The rebels say they have launched a “final assault” on Wadi Deif, which is surrounded by around 2,500 insurgents, says the Observatory.
They responded to the air strikes by opening fire from heavy machineguns mounted on pickup trucks.
“It doesn’t matter if we die. We must shoot down these planes,” one fighter said.
Fighter jets targeting residential areas of Maaret Al Numan on Thursday killed at least 49 people, among them 23 children, rescuers said.
The strikes destroyed two housing complexes and a mosque, where many women and children had taken refuge, with bodies still trapped under the rubble of the mosque, medics and rescuers said.
Among those killed was a nine-month-old baby.
Chubby feet resting on bicycle pedals and a decapitated head were all that was left of a boy caught unaware by the blitz as he played outside his home.
Violence across Syria killed 195 people on Thursday, including 89 civilians, said the Observatory.
The bloodshed mounted as Brahimi again appealed for both sides to lay down their arms for Eid Al Adha, saying such move could pave the way for a longer ceasefire.
“If the ceasefire is implemented, we can build on it and make it a real truce, as well as the start of a political process that would help the Syrians solve their problems and rebuild their country,” Brahimi said in Amman.
But the UN and Arab League envoy also warned: “If the Syrian crisis continues, it will not remain inside Syria. It will affect the entire region.”
Brahimi will hold talks on Saturday with Foreign Minister Walid Mua’alem in Damascus and is also expected to meet Al Assad at a later date.
But doubts loom large over his ability to halt the bloodshed, even temporarily.
Damascus says it is ready to discuss the proposal with Brahimi. The opposition says it would welcome any truce but insists the regime must first halt its daily bombardments.