BEIRUT: Government aircraft have dropped have crude "barrel bombs" on an embattled rebel-held city in western Syria, killing civilians, activists said.
Death tolls from the reported strikes on Yabroud varied widely, as is often the case during the three-year-long conflict. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that 16 civilians and 14 fighters died in Friday's strikes, while an activist, who uses the name Amer, said in a Skype interview that four civilians were killed.
Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have been trying for weeks to capture Yabroud, which overlooks an important highway and is used by rebels as a smuggling hub to bring weapons and fighters from eastern Lebanon.
Assad's forces rely on the barrel bombs, which are powerful but inaccurate and have killed hundreds of civilians. Activists say they appear to be used to clear residents from rebel-held areas ahead of an advance.
Amer said the bombs may have caused fewer civilian deaths in Yabroud than in other areas because most residents had fled across the border to Lebanon. At least 13, 400 Syrians have fled to the nearby Lebanese town of Arsal since the fighting began, according to a U.N. estimate from Feb. 27.
"We don't have pressure by civilians on us (rebels) to withdraw. We have a warzone - they can bomb all they want," he said.
Meanwhile, Syria's main Western-backed coalition confirmed Saturday that it has chosen a new army chief following an embarrassing episode in which their former leader refused to step down.
The statement insisted that despite some "confusion," Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir was the new chief of the military council of the Western-backed coalition. The former chief, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris, has public rejection of his dismissal.
"There has been some spreading confusion regarding the actions taken ... by the council, and so it repeats the following," said the statement. "First, the complete implementation of the decision of the military council ... in dismissing Maj. Gen. Salim Idris and appointing Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir." The statement was made Friday but issued Saturday.
The military council originally issued the announcement appointing al-Bashir on Feb. 17. But two days later Idris rejected his dismissal, badly embarrassing the Western-backed coalition. Then Idris, along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the notoriously divided rebel movement.
Idris was ousted by colleagues who blamed him for the waning influence of the coalition-backed Free Syrian Army, as Islamic-orientated brigades grew in power.