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Opposition threatens Geneva boycott over barrel bombs
People walk past bloodstains as they inspect a site hit by what activists say are barrel bombs dropped by government forces at Maaret al-Naaman town in Idlib, December 23, 2013.  (REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof)
People walk past bloodstains as they inspect a site hit by what activists say are barrel bombs dropped by government forces at Maaret al-Naaman town in Idlib, December 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof)
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DAMASCUS: Syrian aircraft have killed more than 330 people in a nine-day bombing campaign on Aleppo, with the opposition National Coalition threatening Monday to boycott next month’s planned Geneva peace talks if the attacks continue.

The vicious campaign has seen aircraft drop barrels of TNT on rebel-held neighborhoods – a tactic widely condemned as unlawful – flooding hospitals with victims, according to activists, medics and others.

“From Dec. 15 to 22, 301 people have been killed, including 87 children, 30 women and 30 rebels,” said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists and witnesses on the ground.

It later said 30 people had been killed Monday in attacks on the rebel-held Marjeh and Sukkari districts of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital.

Over the nine days, 99 of the fatalities were children, it said.

Activists released footage of what they said was a school targeted in the village of Mareh near Aleppo. Children can be seen running from the school and screaming as explosions rumble in the background.

Inside, men pull children from the rubble, their faces caked in dust and blood. It was not possible to independently verify the footage.

The border of Azaz was also targeted by barrel bombs, activists said, giving a figure of 15 dead.

On Sunday, 65 were killed near an Aleppo marketplace in one of the bloodiest days of the air campaign, according to activists.

A security source told AFP that President Bashar Assad’s army had adopted the tactic because of a lack of ground forces, and argued the heavy civilian toll was because the rebels – branded “terrorists” by the regime – are based in residential areas.

Barrel bombs are crude devices filled with explosives and fuel that are wildly inaccurate – often landing near schools and market places, causing massive damage on impact.

The government has not commented on the use of the crude weapons, or on the intensified strikes over Aleppo. But the timing suggests that Assad could be trying to strengthen his position a month ahead of the Geneva talks.

The main opposition National Coalition called on Western states to impose a no-fly zone to halt the attacks.

“Until Assad’s warplanes are stopped, the humanitarian disaster, regional instability and the rise of extremism will only continue to get worse,” said Munzer Aqbiq, an adviser to coalition president Ahmad Jarba.

Later, coalition Secretary-General Badr Jamous said that “if the bombing the Assad regime is carrying out and its attempt to annihilate the Syrian people continue, then the coalition will not go to Geneva.”

Jamous said Jarba had been in touch with the British and French foreign ministers to tell them about the “daily attacks carried out by the Assad regime using explosive barrels and warplanes, causing dozens of victims.”

“If countries cannot put pressure on the regime to stop these operations of destruction ... how are they going to pressure the regime at Geneva II to obtain a political solution?” Jamous asked.

The talks are aimed at getting agreement on a political transition to end the war, which has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives since March 2011 and displaced millions. The opposition is demanding that Assad step down as part of any deal, which Damascus rejects.

The initiative is aimed at building on the momentum of a deal to eradicate Syria’s vast chemical arsenal by mid-2014, which averted punitive U.S. strikes after an August gas attack near Damascus killed hundreds of people.

But Jarba said it is “shameful that ... the international community takes measures against chemical arms while ... it allows the regime to kill the Syrian people with conventional arms ... almost daily.”

He called on world powers to take “immediate” decisions to put an end to regime attacks.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement: “I am deeply concerned at the escalating level of violence in Syria. I condemn the use of brutal and indiscriminate weapons in densely populated civilian areas, such as we have seen in Aleppo in recent days.”

Analysts argue that the regime has been emboldened by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure to act after Assad allegedly crossed his “red line” against using chemical weapons.

“There are no more red lines, there is a green light,” Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP, saying there is an “element of vengeance” in the Aleppo bombings. “Any credible use of force was taken off the table by Obama and the international community.”

In the capital, Assad received an Australian delegation telling them his government is fighting extremists who might strike anywhere in the world, the state media said. SANA said the delegation included academics, researchers and activists.

“What is happening in Syria and the region in general affects the whole world,” Assad told the delegation. “The country is facing fanatic takfiri ideology that has no borders. It is an epidemic that could strike anytime and anywhere.”

As for the final invite list to Geneva, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Iran was a very important regional power that could play a major role in helping end the Syrian conflict and should be allowed to participate in the peace conference.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy, said Friday that Washington was blocking Iran’s participation.

Ban said he planned to issue invitations before the end of December to the Jan. 22 peace conference and expressed hope that “the question of Iran’s participation is resolved soon.”

The U.N. chief said “negotiations will be difficult, but without them there is only bloodshed and despair on the horizon.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 1.
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