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April 24, 2014

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Activists: Syrian forces launch new Aleppo strikes

Updated Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 9:06 a.m.

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian military helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives in the government's latest air raids on rebel-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, killing at least 13 people including a family trapped in a burning car, activists said.

The raids with barrel bombs, as the crude weapons are known, have flattened residential buildings, forcing defenders to flee and allowing government troops to advance.

The latest attack devastated three buildings in the al-Bab area of Aleppo, Hassoun Abu Faisal of the Aleppo Media Center said via Skype. Another local activist and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights corroborated the information.

The blasts caused a fuel tanker to explode, setting nearby vehicles alight, including one carrying a family of eight who were trying to flee the area as they heard the approaching helicopters, said Abu Faisal.

Photos uploaded by activists showed a man hurling a bucket of water into a building engulfed in flames and black smoke. A video showed men dragging a charred victim out of a smashed building.

"You want a political solution? Here is a political solution!" shouted one man as he pointed at two charred bodies in the rubble-strewn ground.

The man was referring to last week's conference in Switzerland between government officials and opposition activists seeking to resolve Syria's war, which began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 against President Bashar Assad.

The conference did not produce any tangible results, but is likely to lead to backdoor negotiations that may resolve the crisis.

Other barrel bombings in Aleppo killed three people near a mosque and another seven people in the Ansari quarter, activists said.

Ansari is frequently hit. On Friday, activists uploaded a video of what they said was a child being pulled alive from the rubble after shelling there. Scenes of civilians and firefighters pulling out dusty, bloodied bodies from under the rubble have become more frequent as the bombing continues.

The footage appeared authentic and reflected Associated Press reporting of the event.

The barrel bombing in Aleppo comes as Syrian government forces try to reassert their dominance over the city, which has been divided into government- and opposition-held areas since mid-2012.

Over the past few weeks, government troops have fought their way to two rebel-held neighborhoods of Karam Tarrad and Karam Qaser, mostly by flattening residential buildings with barrel bombs, forcing civilians to flee and making it difficult for rebel fighters to stay, activists said.

"They are wiping buildings off the ground," Abu Faisal said.

Syrian troops have also taken advantage of infighting between a loose alliance of rebel brigades against an al-Qaida linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, that is deeply unpopular with other rebels.

On Saturday, militants of the Islamic State carried out a twin suicide car bombing near a rival Islamic brigade near Aleppo, killing at least seven people, the Observatory said.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 136,000 people, in the latest count by the Britain-based Observatory, which tracks the missing and killed through a network of informants on the ground.

The war has also forcibly displaced one-third of the entire prewar population of 23 million.

Tens of thousands more are blockaded in rebel-held areas, where Assad loyalists prevent food and aid from entering to break their resistance and to flush out fighters, including al-Qaida extremists.

They include the Yarmouk area on the southern edge of Damascus, where Assad loyalists have steadily intensified a blockade over the past year. Activists say this has led to the deaths of over 80 people from hunger-related illnesses or from a lack of medical aid.

Over the past two days, aid workers distributed 2,014 food parcels, each meant to feed a family for 10 days. The U.N. estimates there are at least 18,000 people in Yarmouk.

On Saturday, aid workers continued the distribution, handing over another 480 parcels by the afternoon, said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.

The spokesman welcomed the distribution but said it was not enough to cover the needs of Yarmouk's residents.

Footage carried by Lebanese al-Mayadeen television showed hundreds of men and women, many with faces shrunken by malnutrition, desperately jostling to reach the distribution point.

"These tense scenes attest to the profound levels of need that pertain in a camp that has been besieged for months and where humanitarian supplies are in very short supply," Gunness said. "We have had confirmed reports of widespread malnutrition and women dying in childbirth for lack of medical services so the need for this access is urgent."

Also Saturday, clashes continued around the area of Zara in the central Syrian province of Homs, which lies close to the Lebanese mountainous province of Akkar, activists said.

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With additional reporting by Albert Aji in Damascus