Syrian fighter jets blasted the strategic rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan Thursday, killing dozens and adding urgency to truce calls by peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, scheduled to arrive in Damascus Friday.
Rescuers said bombs destroyed two residential buildings and a mosque, where many women and children were taking refuge, in the strategic northwestern town, which was captured by rebels Oct. 9 in a push to create a buffer zone along the Turkish border.
“We have recovered 44 corpses from under the rubble,” one worker told an AFP correspondent at the scene.
In a field hospital, the correspondent saw at least 32 bodies wrapped in white sheets, including six children and many mutilated corpses, as well as plastic bags marked “body parts.”
“At the moment it seems only three people survived the attack, including a 2-year-old child,” said medic Jaffar Sharhoub. “He survived in the arms of his dead father.”
Several fighter jets flew over Maaret al-Numan and the surrounding area throughout Thursday morning.
They made short dives to drop at least 10 bombs on the town and its eastern outskirts, near the besieged Wadi Deif army base which came under heavy bombardment by the rebels.
Early evening, the rebels launched what they said was a “final assault” on the base, which is a key depot for tanks and fuel supplies.
Hundreds of fighters attacked the base, an AFP correspondent reported. Three tanks were destroyed and at least six soldiers surrendered, rebel officers said.
The base is situated two kilometers from the Damascus-Aleppo highway, of which the rebels control a stretch of several kilometers. That is severely impairing the army’s ability to resupply units under fire in the northern metropolis for the past three months.
The official SANA news agency said troops were “cleaning villages” in the countryside around Maaret, killing and wounding many rebels.
In the capital, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up just 300 meters from the Interior Ministry without causing any casualties, a security source said.
Insurgents also blew up a gas pipeline from Deir Ezzor to Palmyra in the central Syrian desert and an oil pipeline from Al-Omar field to Atteim field in north of Deir Ezzor, SANA said.
Nationwide, at least 181 people were killed Thursday, including 84 civilians, 61 soldiers and 36 rebels, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that this brought the death toll since March last year to more than 34,000.
The latest uptick in violence came on the eve of Brahimi’s arrival in Damascus, where he is scheduled to press both sides in the conflict for a cease-fire during the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday starting Oct. 26.
Speaking in neighboring Jordan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy said he hoped that such a temporary cease-fire could form the basis for a longer lasting truce, warning that the alternative would be disastrous for the whole region.
“If the cease-fire is implemented, we can build on it and make it a real truce as well as the start of a political process that would help the Syrians solve their problems and rebuild their country,” Brahimi said in Amman.
The diplomat’s visit to Syria for talks with Foreign Minister Walid Moallem Saturday will be his last stop on a tour of countries that play influential roles in the crisis – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
The envoy will also meet with President Bashar Assad “very, very soon, but not on Saturday,” Brahimi’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told AFP.
Fawzi said the envoy, a veteran Algerian diplomat, was working on a new, comprehensive peace plan.
“It’s difficult to put a timeline on it but it’s all coming together. He has completed the circle with this tour of neighboring countries. He needs to go now to the outer circle, to Moscow and China, and look them in the eye and say this will not work unless you support it,” Fawzi said.
The truce would be self-imposed with no monitoring.
“This is an appeal to the Syrians themselves that they stop fighting and observe it themselves. This is not the political process or the solution required to the Syrian crisis,” Brahimi said. Damascus has said it is ready to discuss with Brahimi his proposal but wanted assurances that countries with influence on the rebels would pressure them to reciprocate. The exiled opposition said it would welcome any cease-fire but insisted the ball is in the government’s court to halt its daily bombardments.
Asked whether any optimism was warranted over the Damascus talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said: “Let’s see what Brahimi has to say.”
Makdissi said Damascus hoped Brahimi’s talks in the region, including with countries which back the rebels, could herald “something which leads to the success of a constructive initiative.”
A previous cease-fire in April collapsed after just a few days, with each side blaming the other. Mediator Kofi Annan resigned his post in frustration a few months later.
Since then the war pitting Assad’s troops against a loosely organized rebel force trying to end his 12-year-old rule has intensified. The daily death toll routinely tops 100 combatants and civilians.
Serious doubts have been raised about Brahimi’s plan to halt the bloodshed, even temporarily. “I don’t know whether they will all agree at the higher level or not on the cease-fire proposal, but on the ground you have pro- and anti-regime forces that do not respond to any authority,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Observatory.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said such a short-term truce was “possible, but it will not be strategic or permanent.”
“I doubt the truce will initiate a political process, because the conditions for such a process are lacking both in Syria and the international community,” Salem said.
The international community has remained sharply divided over the Syrian crisis, but Syrian ally Iran and one of Syria’s harshest critics, Turkey have both expressed cautious support for the cease-fire.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on a visit to Kuwait Thursday reiterated calls for the truce to be upheld.
The Iraqi government also expressed its support in a statement, calling on all sides to abandon violence “to save the region from more miseries and pains.”
Turkey’s army meanwhile Thursday staged a new military drill near its border with Syria, amid heightened tensions between the two neighboring countries, Anatolia news agency reported.
Ankara has taken an increasingly strident line toward its southern neighbor since a mortar bomb fired from the Syrian side of the border killed five Turkish civilians on Oct. 3. Since then, Turkey has retaliated on each occasion that its border has been violated by mortar bombs from across the frontier.