BEIRUT – Syrian government airstrikes on a residential neighborhood in a rebel-held town killed over 40 people and wounded at least 100 others including many women and children, international watchdog Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
The strikes on the town of Azaz in northern Syria a day earlier leveled the better part of a poor neighborhood and sent panicked civilians fleeing for cover. So many were wounded that the local hospital locked its doors, directing residents to drive to the nearby Turkish border so the injured could be treated on the other side.
Reporters from The Associated Press saw nine bodies in the bombings' immediate aftermath, including a baby.
Human Rights Watch, which investigated the site of the bombing two hours after the attack, put the number at over 40.
"This horrific attack killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed a whole residential block," said Anna Neistat, the group's acting emergencies director. "Yet again, Syrian government forces attacked with callous disregard for civilian life."
HRW said two opposition Free Syrian Army facilities in the vicinity of the attack might have been targets of the Syrian aircraft.
One was the headquarters of the local Free Syrian Army brigade two streets away from the block that was hit. The other was a detention facility where the Free Syrian Army held "security detainees" -- government military personnel and members of pro-government shabiha militia. Neither of these facilities was damaged in the attack.
The bombing of Azaz, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Aleppo, shattered the sense of control rebels have sought to project since they took the area from President Bashar Assad's army last month. Azaz is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites they captured in May. On Wednesday, Lebanese media reported conflicting reports on their fate, but it was unclear whether they had been affected by the bombing.
In recent months, rebels have pushed the Syrian army from a number of towns in a swath of territory south of the Turkish border and north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. About a dozen destroyed tanks and army vehicles are scattered around Azaz, left over from those battles.
As the Assad regime's grip on the ground slips, however, it is increasingly targeting rebel areas with attack helicopters and fighter jets -- weapons the rebels can't challenge.
Also on Thursday, state-run television said government troops freed three journalists who were seized last week by rebels while covering violence in a Damascus suburb.
Syria TV says the three journalists from the pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya were freed in a "qualitative operation" Thursday in the town of al-Tal just north of the capital. It did not provide further details.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the Al-Ikhbariya team was freed, amid heavy shelling on al-Tal. The group relies on a network of activists on the ground.