BEIRUT – A Syrian warplane on Saturday bombed a small town partially controlled by anti-regime fighters near the Turkish border, killing eight people and wounding at least 20, the latest escalation in the use of air power by President Bashar Assad's government in the Arab nation's civil war.
The afternoon airstrike, reported by activists in the area as well as the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, was one of at least two that took place on Saturday. The increased use of airstrikes by the regime is taking its toll on civilians, and, in the eyes of activists, is evidence of its insensitivity to civilian casualties as it battles for survival against the rebels.
The regime's growing use of warplanes also comes at a time when western powers are looking into suggestions for militarily enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Russia rejects the idea.
The airstrike on the town of Manbej in the Jarablous area came hours after a government announcement said Syria welcomed the appointment of former Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the U.N.'s new point-man in efforts to halt the civil war.
The announcement was made by the office of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, which also denied Arab media reports that al-Sharaa had defected to the opposition. Al-Sharaa "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country," the statement said. The regime has suffered a string of prominent defections in recent months, though Assad's inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him.
Brahimi, the new U.N. envoy, takes over from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who is stepping down on Aug. 31 after his attempts to broker a cease-fire failed. His appointment comes as U.N. observers have begun leaving Syria, with their mission officially over by midnight Sunday.
In Syria, activists and the London Observatory could not say what was the intended target of the lone air force MiG-25 when it rocketed Manbej, which has a population of some 40,000. The wounded were treated in field hospitals in the town and in clinics across the border in Turkey.
A second airstrike earlier in the day targeted the northern border town of Azaz, where more than 40 people were killed and at least 100 wounded in an airstrike earlier this week, according to international watchdog Human Rights Watch. Activists said Saturday's bombs hit an open field. There were no casualties.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a televised interview that his country has rejected foreign intervention in the form of a militarily enforced no-fly zone for government aircraft in northern Syria — an idea he said was mentioned as a possible option by U.S. officials last week.
"That would be a violation of sovereignty if this included areas (in) Syrian territory, as well as a breach of the United Nations charter," Lavrov told Sky News Arabia in the interview Saturday.
"There are initiatives by the (U.N.) to provide aid to refugees in camps on the territory of Turkey and Jordan and other countries as per the international humanitarian law," he said in a transcript provided by the Abu Dhabi-based Arabic-language station. "But if they are trying to create safe zones and no-fly zones for military purposes by citing an international crisis — that is unacceptable."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that Washington and Turkey were discussing a range of steps including a no-fly zone over some parts of Syria as the Assad regime increasingly uses its air force to attack rebels.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Associated Press last Monday that he is confident the United States could successfully enforce such a prohibition of flights, but that plans for a no-fly zone were "not on the front burner" despite persistent calls from rebel forces that they need the added protection.
In other violence Saturday, regime forces shelled rebel areas across the country, including the southern province of Daraa, the northern region of Aleppo, Deir el-Zour to the east and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, activists said. They said at least 15 people were killed in the Deir el-Zour area.
Also Saturday, 40 bodies were found piled in a heap on a street in the Damascus suburb of al-Tal, according to the Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees. The suburb saw days of heavy fighting until regime forces largely took over the area earlier this week.
The 40 had all been killed by bullet wounds, but their identity was not known, nor was it known who had killed them, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
"It is not clear if they were civilians, army defectors or soldiers," he said. Also unclear was whether they had been killed at the place where the bodies were found or if residents had collected the bodies there.
A series of hostage-takings by Syria's rebels has touched off retaliatory abductions of Syrians in neighboring Lebanon and raised worries Lebanon could be dragged deeper into unrest.
Lebanese security officials said Saturday that five more Syrians were abducted in Beirut's southern suburbs overnight. It was not clear who carried out the latest abductions, but earlier kidnappings were carried out by the al-Mikdad clan, a powerful Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon.
The al-Mikdad clan says it has snatched a number of Syrians and a Turk in Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction of their relative, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, by rebels in Syria.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.