BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government helicopters dropped barrels full of high explosives on a rebel-held town near the northern city of Aleppo, killing 37 people in two separate attacks over the weekend, activists said Sunday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an attack Sunday on the town of al-Bab, located east of Aleppo, killed 11 people. The day before, army helicopters targeted a rebel compound in al-Bab, but missed their target and hit a market, killing 26 people, the group said.
The army used barrel bombs in both attacks, which contain hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives.
President Bashar Assad's forces have relied heavily on air power in the last year to regain control of opposition-held territory, particularly in the north and along the border with Turkey. Rebels also control parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its commercial center.
Activists say barrel-bomb airstrikes often precede government ground offensives. Assad's forces may be mounting a major operation to recapture territory and bolster its position ahead of peace talks planned for January in Geneva.
Assad's troops also have been fighting in central Syria's rugged Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border to cut off rebel supply routes and stem the flow of incoming fighters. On Sunday, the Observatory said government forces fought rebels, including members of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, inside the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula near Damascus. There were casualties on both sides, said Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory.
Maaloula lies on the edge of Qalamoun, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of the capital. The town had been firmly in the government's grip despite being surrounded by rebel-held territory. It's just southwest of Nabek, which has been the focus of a government push for the past three days.
Nabek is located along the key highway that connects Damascus with Homs, Syria's third largest city. Clearing towns and villages of rebels along the highway would help the government regain control of its main overland supply route to central cities such as Hama and government-held areas to the north, including districts in Aleppo.
Military aircraft targeted Nabek on Sunday, just hours after a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden car near a police station in the town, killing five members of the security forces, the Observatory said.
Rebels also fired mortar rounds into the capital and surrounding areas, killing one woman in the suburb of Harasta, the state news agency SANA said.
A mortar shell also hit the French schools in the capital's upscale Mazzeh district. There were no casualties in the attack, although more than 200 students were attending classes when the shell hit, said a receptionist who answered the phone at the school. The school suspended classes after the attack and parents took their children home for fear of more shells landing there, he said.
The worker spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.
France's foreign ministry confirmed the attack on the school and condemned it in a statement as a "cowardly act that could have caused the death of young children."
Associated Press writers Yasmin Saker in Beirut; Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.