Syrian government forces ratcheted up their offensive against rebels across the country again Sunday, striking neighborhoods with warplanes and killing some 70 people, most of them civilians, opposition groups said.
In one airstrike, in the Haddad village in the country’s northeastern Hassakeh province, at least 16 people were killed, including at least three children, according to the opposition activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said 27 children were among 52 civilians killed in strikes and clashes with rebel forces across the country Sunday.
Another airstrike on the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun killed at least nine children, the Observatory said.
With its ground forces stretched thin, President Bashar Assad’s regime has relied heavily on its fighter jets and helicopters to try to stem rebel advances in the country’s civil war. The air raids frequently hit civilian areas, drawing criticism from the international community.
A Human Rights Watch report last week accused the Syrian government of committing war crimes by using indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians, killing at least 4,300 people since the summer.A Hassakeh-based activist who was in Haddad when the plane struck said the bombs sent huge plumes of black smoke billowing over the town. He spoke on condition that he only be identified by his nickname of Abu Qasem – by which he is widely known among his comrades – out of fear of reprisals.
In other violence across the country Sunday, regime troops reached the embattled military bases of Hamadiya and Wadi Deif near the city of Maaret al-Numan, in the northwestern Idlib province, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
The government forces killed more than 20 rebels in an ambush in the area Saturday, opening the way for supplies to reach the facilities. The military had been forced to drop supplies in by helicopter because rebels controlled the area.
“Regime forces managed to lift the siege on the Wadi Deif and Hamadiya military camps after the army went around the rebel fighters and attacked them from behind,” the Observatory said.
Speaking to AFP, Abdel-Rahman said regular soldiers “now control two hilltops on either side of the Damascus-Aleppo international highway,” reopening a supply route for the army.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, also reported that four civilians had died after being tortured in a jail in the town of Zakyeh, but did not provide any further details.
And in Deraa, the province noted for the outbreak of protests that started the uprising across the country, the minaret of an historic mosque was damaged, prompting a chorus of condemnation.
The Syrian government and opposition activists traded blame for the destruction of the Omari Mosque, which is though to date back to the seventh century.
“This regime of unrestrained barbarism targeted with tanks the minaret of the Omari Mosque, a place full of symbols of civilization and spirituality and humanity,” said the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activists’ network, also condemned the attack, which it labeled a “barbaric action” that “didn’t only destroy stones, but also destroyed a religious and historic heritage that is a source of pride for the people of Syria.”
“This mosque,” it added, “is a religious symbol and a deep political symbol for the revolution in Syria: The first speech in the revolution in Syria was recited there by the Sheikh Ahmad Alsayasneh, and the starting point of the first demonstration of dignity and anger.”
The state news agency SANA, meanwhile, quoted a local official in Deraa as pinning blame for the destruction of the minaret on the jihadist Nusra Front.
“Nusra terrorists in Deraa targeted the minaret,” the unidentified official said, adding that they had obtained a fatwa, or religious edict, authorizing attacks on places of worship “if necessary.”
“All the signs prove that the terrorists blew up the minaret,” the official said.
Syria’s rebels – a mosaic of various factions with different ideologies and no united command – have pried much of the country’s north from regime forces, and captured their first provincial capital, Raqqa, last month.
Rebels also have made significant gains in recent weeks in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, capturing military bases and territory that could provide anti-Assad fighters with a staging ground for an assault on Damascus.
The push in the south has coincided with what Western and Arab officials say is U.S.-backed training of opposition fighters in Jordan and an influx of foreign-funded weapons into the south.