Syrian rebels and regime forces in Aleppo fought fierce battles near the headquarters of Air Force intelligence Monday evening on the third day of the regime’s stepped-up “barrel bomb” offensive against the northern city, prompting officials to close schools for a week in rebel-held areas.
The Shamiah Front rebel alliance claimed responsibility for the second detonation of the Air Force intelligence headquarters in the space of five weeks, and said the blast killed an unspecified number of regime troops.
“This is a simple response to the crimes of the Bashar Assad regime against the women and children of Aleppo,” a spokesman for the rebel alliance said.
“We targeted a purely military area, with no civilians,” he added.
Regime planes pounded the site after the huge explosion – heard around Aleppo – as regime troops and their allies clashed with insurgents, according to both pro- and anti-regime sources.
An anti-regime media activist group in Aleppo said the insurgents managed to seize the facility after several hours of clashes.
The blast followed a March 5 detonation of a tunnel near the Air Force intelligence headquarters, which severely damaged the structure and killed an unspecified number of regime forces and their paramilitary allies.
It came after barrel bombs dropped by helicopter continued to target Aleppo and its outskirts for the third straight day.
More than 120 people are believed to have been killed during the three-day period, according to the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of anti-regime activists.
The group said that more than 80 people were killed in strikes on rebel-held areas, while 38 fatalities were reported in shelling in regime-held districts.
Its spokesman said there was confusion over whether the targeting of Suleimanieh, with a large Christian population, had come from rebel-held areas or “unknown sources,” as acknowledged by some pro-regime media outlets.
Michel Abaji, the director of the Mar Elias home for the elderly, was killed in one of the strikes Saturday, in the neighborhood of Maadi. He had recently appeared in a short piece of footage, posted to YouTube, showing him receiving a dozen rebel fighters who were delivering Easter greetings at the home.
Civil Defense personnel have been scrambling to rescue survivors from the rubble of collapsed buildings, while the authorities responsible for the education sector in rebel-held areas announced Sunday that more than 100 schools would be closed for the rest of the week.
The decision followed a barrel bomb strike that killed five schoolchildren, three female teachers and a man. The gruesome photos of two of the victims – who were decapitated by the blast – quickly circulated in anti-regime social media.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrikes have targeted local markets, schools and a center for distributing flour to local bakeries, resulting in the spoiling of “tons” of the desperately needed goods.
The offensive came as Syria’s mufti, Ahmad Hassoun, said regime forces should “go on the offensive” against rebel-held parts of the country.
“For any rebel-fired mortar bomb that falls on Aleppo, the entire area should be annihilated,” Hassoun said in a statements made over the weekend to pro-regime media.
The Observatory said the regime has carried out just under 1,500 airstrikes since the beginning of the month. More than 800 barrel bombs were used in the campaign, it said, which covered 11 out of Syria’s 14 provinces.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, told AFP that the regime’s aerial campaign against rebel-held areas of Aleppo had intensified significantly. “For two months, the army didn’t make a single real breakthrough on the battlefield,” so it compensated with more air raids, he said.
The Observatory said the strikes nationwide killed 184 civilians, among them 34 women and 58 minors, and wounded approximately 1,300 others. It added that at least 67 rebel and jihadi fighters were killed in the strikes, but believed the actual figure to be considerably higher.