BEIRUT – Syrian warplanes hammered a strategic city captured by rebels, leaving behind scenes of carnage captured Thursday on amateur videos that showed a man holding up two child-sized legs not connected to a body and another carrying a dismembered arm.
Activists said airstrikes over the past two days on opposition targets across Syria's north have killed at least 43 people.
The city of Maaret al-Numan, located strategically on a major north-south highway connecting Aleppo and Damascus, was captured by rebels last week and there has been heavy fighting around it ever since. Rebel brigades from the surrounding area have poured in to defend the town. Online videos have shown them firing mortars at regime troops, and they claimed to have shot down a government helicopter on Wednesday.
Since it was captured a week ago, the city in northern Idlib province and its surroundings have been the focus of one of the heaviest air bombardments since President Bashar Assad's military first unleashed its air force against rebels over the summer.
Local activists in the city say warplanes are continuously overhead, and entire villages are largely deserted and peppered with destroyed homes.
The scenes from the city provide a window into the carnage being wrought by the Syrian military's increasing reliance on airstrikes to fight rebels waging a civil war to topple Assad. Rights groups say the airstrikes often hit civilian areas. And this week, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accused Syria of using cluster bombs, which pose grave dangers to civilians.
The regime contends that it is fighting terrorists backed by foreign powers who seek to destroy Syria and denies using cluster bombs.
The latest onslaught from the skies left residents frantically poring through mounds of rubble searching for survivors or bodies trapped underneath.
Amateur videos purportedly filmed after an airstrike there on Thursday showed the men carrying around body parts and 18 white cloth bundles holding the remains of those killed. Activist claims and videos cannot be independently verified due to restrictions on reporting in Syria. But all videos corresponded to activists' reports and appeared to have been filmed where they said they were.
One strike hit a neighborhood near the rebel field hospital in Maaret al-Numan, activist Fadi Yassin said via Skype.
Airstrikes also hit three nearby villages on Wednesday, killing 15 people, Yassin said. Nine of those were in Kafar Nubul, while others died in the villages of Kafrouma and Hass.
Airstrikes late Wednesday and early Thursday hit at least five towns in northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces, both of which border Turkey.
The aftermath of one of the strikes was captured on video late Wednesday in the city of Aleppo. It struck a large mosque. While some men in the videos carry away bodies, others work to dig out a survivor whose legs are buried in debris.
An Aleppo-based activist who gave his name as Abu Raed said men were arriving for Wednesday evening prayers when a fighter jet dropped a bomb on the Light of the Martyrs Mosque in the Shaar neighborhood. The blast destroyed a room used for ritual washing and part of the prayer hall itself, he said via Skype.
He said at least 10 people had been killed, though the number could be higher, either because bodies were still trapped in the rubble or because people were buried before being recorded.
"There were people who took the dead and wounded away before the cameras showed up," he said.
Videos that activists said were shot soon after the attack show a block-wide expanse of rubble surrounded by buildings whose facades had been blown off. Men scour the rubble, occasionally finding bodies and carrying them off.
Rebels and regime forces have been clashing for months in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial capital.
As a sign of how little months of international diplomacy has done to stop the bloodshed in Syria, a number of nations and the U.N. envoy to the Syria conflict are pushing for a temporary cease-fire during a Muslim holiday later this month. Joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has called on the Syrian government to take the first step in observing a truce during the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday that begins on Oct. 26.
In Amman, Jordan, he said the temporary truce could be a first step in helping Syrians "to resolve their problems and to rebuild a new Syria."
The Syrian government said it wants a cease-fire but the rebels lack a unified leadership that can agree to it.
Both sides have flouted previous cease-fires after verbally agreeing to them.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close ally of Assad, called for the truce during a visit to Kuwait. 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."
Activists say more than 33,000 people have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising started in March 2011.
Also Thursday, Syria's state news agency said rebels blew up two oil and gas pipelines in the northeast near the Iraqi border. The agency, SANA, said the attack hit one oil and one gas pipeline near the city of Deir al-Zour. The pipelines ran between Deir al-Zour and the city of Palmyra in central Syria.
SANA quoted an oil ministry official saying the lines were immediately shut off, the fires were extinguished. Rebels have repeatedly bombed such pipelines.
Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed reporting.