BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government helicopters dropped barrels full of explosives on a rebel-held town near the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 50 people in two separate attacks over the weekend, activists said Sunday.
The shelling Sunday hit near a bakery in the town of al-Bab, located east of Aleppo, killing at least 24 people, said Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Akram al-Halabi, a rebel spokesman based in nearby in Aleppo.
The Observatory obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground. Syrian state media said government forces killed "terrorists," which is how they describe armed rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad's rule.
The attack followed a similar bombing on Saturday, when army helicopters targeted a rebel compound in al-Bab, but missed their target and hit a market, killing 26 people, Abdurrahman said.
The army used barrel bombs in both attacks, which contain hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives.
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 troops may be mounting a major operation to recapture territory and bolster its position ahead of peace talks planned for January in Geneva.
Assad's forces 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.
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, but is surrounded by rebel-held territory.
It is near Nabek, where there have been clashes for the past three days.
Nabek is located along a key highway connecting 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.
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 a French school 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 school receptionist. The school suspended classes after the attack and parents took their children home for fear of more shells landing there, he said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief journalists.
In a statement, France's foreign ministry condemned the attack as "cowardly act that could have caused the death of young children."
Associated Press writers Yasmin Saker and Diaa Hadid in Beirut; Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.