Activists: Syria regime kills 51 in Aleppo airstrikes

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Syrian men help survivors out of a destroyed building after a Syrian forces warplane's attack in Aleppo, Syria,  Feb. 8, 2014. AP

BEIRUT -- At least 51 people, including 13 rebels, died in a single day of Syrian government airstrikes and shelling of opposition-controlled districts of Aleppo, activists said Thursday as international mediators were trying to salvage faltering peace negotiations in Geneva. 

 The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said most of the victims were killed by airstrikes and barrel bombs dumped on eight rebel-held districts of the northern city on Wednesday.

The rest died from artillery shelling, sniper fire and in clashes between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebels fighting to overthrow him.

While the violence raged in Aleppo, a humanitarian ceasefire in the Syrian city of Homs was extended on Thursday for three more days, the city's governor told Reuters.  

"The ceasefire has been extended for an additional three days, starting from today, to allow the evacuation of the remaining civilians," Talal al-Barazi, the governor, said by telephone.

He added that a total of 1,400 people had been evacuated from the besieged Old City since last Friday, when the U.N.-brokered ceasefire began. Of those, 220 were still undergoing background checks, he said, meaning they were being detained for questioning.

While women and children have been free to leave, males aged between 15 and 55 are deemed of fighting age by the Syrian authorities and are being vetted by the security forces. Barazi said 70 people had been cleared for release on Thursday.  

In a statement late on Wednesday, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the government had pledged to release men after they had been screened. "We expect them to keep that pledge," Edgar Vasquez, the spokesman, said.

The bombings in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, are part of a campaign by Assad's forces to wrest control of neighborhoods that were seized by rebels in mid-2012.

The Observatory has been documenting Syria's conflict since its start in March 2011 through a network of activists on the ground.

It released its report on the latest Aleppo casualties on Thursday, ahead of a trilateral meeting between senior U.S. and Russian officials and U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, and Syrian government and opposition representatives in Geneva.

A second round of talks started in Switzerland on Monday but the discussions quickly became mired in acrimony as government and opposition delegates hurled accusations for the bloodshed taking place back home, failing to even agree on the talks' agenda.

From the outset, the talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence on the ground.

The Observatory said that at least 4,959 people have died in Syria in the three-week period since Jan. 22, when the government and opposition delegates sat down for the first round of face-to-face meetings in Geneva. The Observatory said in a report Wednesday that the period has seen the highest death toll since the uprising against Assad started nearly three years ago.

More than 130,000 people have died in the conflict since then, activist say. Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes, some seeking shelter in neighboring countries and others in safe parts of their homeland.


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