MAARET AL-NUMAN (Syria), Oct 18: Syrian fighter jets blasted the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan on Thursday, killing at least 44 people, rescuers said, adding urgency to truce calls by peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Rescue workers said the air force’s bombs destroyed two residential buildings and a mosque, where many women and children were taking refuge, in the strategic northwestern town, which was captured by rebel fighters on Oct 9 in their push to create a buffer zone along the Turkish border.

“We have recovered 44 corpses from under the rubble,” one rescue worker told reporters at the scene.

In a makeshift field hospital, this correspondent saw 12 corpses wrapped in white sheets, and plastic bags marked “body parts”.

The correspondent said one child was decapitated while the body of a second, still on his bicycle, was pulled from the rubble.

“At the moment it seems only three people survived the attack, including a two-year-old child,” said medic Jaffar Sharhoub. “He survived in the arms of his dead father.”

A resident said several of the dead had just returned from Kafr Nabal, a town west of Maaret al-Numan. “They thought the danger had passed.”

Several fighter jets flew over Maaret al-Numan and the surrounding area throughout Thursday morning.

They made short dives to drop at least 10 bombs on the town and its eastern outskirts, near the Wadi Deif army base which is under rebel siege.

The rebels attempted but failed to shoot down the warplanes, while setting tyres alight to produce columns of thick black smoke in an attempt to restrict the visibility of the pilots.

They also rained mortar rounds on the 250 troops holed up in the base, the largest in northwestern Idlib province and vital to the government’s efforts to regain control of the main Damascus-Aleppo highway and resupply units that have under fire in the northern metropolis for the past three months.

In the capital, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up just 300 metres from the interior ministry without causing any casualties, a security source said.

The bombing came hours after the government announced that Brahimi would travel to Damascus on Saturday to press his call for a ceasefire during the four-day Eid holiday starting on Oct 26. Speaking in neighbouring Jordan on Thursday, the UN-Arab League envoy said he hoped that such a temporary ceasefire could form the basis for a longer lasting truce, warning that the alternative would be disastrous for the whole region.

“If the ceasefire is implemented, we can build on it and make it a real truce as well as the start of a political process that would help the Syrians solve their problems and rebuild their country,” Brahimi said in Amman.

“If the Syrian crisis continues, it will not remain inside Syria. It will affect the entire region,” he added.

The Algerian diplomat’s visit to Syria will be his last stop on a tour of countries that play influential roles in the crisis — Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

Asked whether any optimism was warranted over the envoy’s Damascus talks, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Maqdisi said: “Let’s see what Brahimi has to say.”

Serious doubts have been raised about Brahimi’s plan to halt the bloodshed, even temporarily.—AFP


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