BEIRUT: A suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of Aleppo’s central prison Thursday and rebels stormed in behind him, freeing hundreds of inmates as part of an offensive aimed at capturing key government symbols around the northern city, activists and a monitoring group said.Government forces, meanwhile, dropped crude “barrel bombs” in deadly airstrikes as both sides escalated their fight for the strategic city ahead of a second round of peace talks set for next week. Opposition leaders have been threatening to suspend the talks over the bombings.
In the past six days alone, the makeshift weapons – containers packed with explosives, fuel and scrap metal – have killed more than 250 people in Aleppo, including 73 children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
They include at least 11 who died Thursday – six of them from the same family – in the opposition-held neighborhood of Masaken Hanano.
Videos uploaded by activists showed the aftermath, including men weeping amid ravaged buildings and corpses covered with blankets on the pavement.
“Be careful. There’s a corpse under your feet. ... It’s a child!” someone shouted. The videos were consistent with reporting by AP.
The rebels in Aleppo declared a push to seize the city’s central prison and the Kweiris military air base to the east. Opposition fighters have been trying to capture the installations for months.
Thursday’s offensive began when a Chechen suicide bomber from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front attacked the prison gates, according to the Observatory. Rebel fighters then managed to gain control of large parts of the compound. By evening, heavy clashes between the rebels and soldiers were raging inside.
Other media reports said that more than one suicide bombing took place during the offensive.
The Observatory and other activists said the rebels freed several hundred prisoners – approximately 3,000 men and 800 women – although the reports could not be confirmed. Activists said that the rebels had thrown up a cordon around the facility and would not allow the media to approach until the area was secure.
The Nusra Front was joined by the Ahrar al-Sham movement, a member of the Islamic Front alliance, in spearheading the attack.
“Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front have taken control of 80 percent of Aleppo central prison and freed hundreds of prisoners,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
But state TV carried a breaking news alert, saying soldiers and security forces had “thwarted an attack against the prison by terrorist groups.”
The Observatory estimated that 20 regime troops were killed in the attack, along with a dozen Nusra Front fighters, while four rebels were killed by regime shelling of the prison area.
Rebels have been besieging the prison for almost a year. They have rammed suicide car bombs into the front gates twice, lobbed shells into the compound and battled frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside.
Conditions inside are said to be dire, with the Observatory reporting outbreaks of tuberculosis and other diseases. The conditions prompted the government to announce in December the release of 366 prisoners for “humanitarian reasons.”
In next-door Idlib province, a regime airstrike targeted the village of Kfar Takharim, wounding a number of people, while at least four people were killed in the town of Maaret al-Numan when a missile exploded after it had dropped the day before and failed to explode.
The Observatory said that 14 members of the Nusra Front were killed in a regime airstrike on the Abu Dhuhur military airport late Wednesday.
Regime troops and rebel groups also clashed Thursday around the Nairab military airport facility, but there was no word on casualties. Islamist rebel groups launched a Grad missile at the Hama military airport, the Observatory said, causing an undetermined number of regime casualties.
Fierce fighting between regime troops and rebel groups continued in Deraa province, with the Observatory reporting that a rebel commander was killed in the clashes.
Government helicopters also dropped barrel bombs on rural Damascus areas of Daraya and Khan al-Shih, the village of Morek in Hama, areas of rural Latakia, and the Homs village of Zara, where a child was killed.
Fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and various rebel groups also continued, with the Observatory reporting that the clashes centered around the village of Rai near the Turkish border, the town of Manbij and the village of Blat, all in Aleppo province.
A total of 190 people were killed in Wednesday’s violence, the Observatory said.