BEIRUT – A rocket fired by Syrian regime forces slammed into a northern rebel-held village Wednesday, killing six members of a single family, activists said, while Turkey's foreign minister called on the international community to declare the Syrian regime's bombardment of its own citizens a war crime.
With violence escalating and hopes of a political solution dwindling, Russia announced for the first time that it has evacuated families of its diplomats in Syria some time ago but said it is not planning a large-scale evacuation of the tens of thousands of its citizens still in the country.
Russia has been the main protector of President Bashar Assad, shielding him from U.N. sanctions over his crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to play down the significance of evacuation of 77 of its citizens who had fled Syria and were flown back to Moscow on Wednesday. He told reporters that about 1,000 Russians residing in Syria contacted consular officials to express their interest in leaving the country, but no large-scale evacuation was immediately planned.
Both sides have increased attacks over the past weeks as diplomatic efforts have floundered with the opposition rejecting any dialogue with Assad in power and Syrian officials saying the president will stay until the end of his term in mid-2014, and will be running for re-election.
Syria's conflict started 22 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. The regime also has turned increasingly to airstrikes.
"Aleppo and many other cities are being bombarded by airplanes indiscriminately," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
He added that "this is a criminal act" even at a time of war and urged the international community to declare the bombardment a war crime and to insist on humanitarian access to areas of central Syria.
The rocket landed in the village of Abu Taltal in Aleppo province after midnight Wednesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees. The groups frequently report government bombardment of rebel-dominated regions.
The Observatory said a man, his wife and their four children aged two to 11 were killed. The LCC said the family name was Hazrouni.
The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted. Syrian activist groups say the death toll includes hundreds of children.
The Observatory and the LCC also reported violence elsewhere in the country with air raids around the capital Damascus and clashes and shelling in the southern province of Daraa and the central region of Homs.
The Observatory said troops shelled rebel-held neighborhoods of the central city of Homs and the nearby region of Houla, which includes a string of villages. Houla has witnessed clashes and shelling between troops and rebels since after the start of the uprising and was the scene of the killing of more than 100 people last year.
Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported that armed opposition groups appeared to have deliberately destroyed religious sites in mixed areas of northern Syria in the last two months of last year.
The New York-based group said investigations showed an armed opposition group destroyed two churches in the coastal region of Latakia and a Shiite Muslim place of worship in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Evidence and witness testimony suggested that all three attacks took place after the areas fell to opposition control and government forces had left, the group said.
Mainly Sunni Islamic extremists have joined the rebels in their fight against Assad, including the al-Qaida linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist organization.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented the destruction and looting of a mosque in Taftanaz, Idlib, by Syrian government forces.
"The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country, with tens of thousands killed," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Syria will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship. Leaders on both sides should send a message that those who attack these sites will be held accountable."