People walk on the rubble of destroyed buildings following an airstrike by the Syrian airforce on the town of Maarat al-Numan, in an area under the control of rebel fighters, on October 17, 2012. — Photo by AFP

MAARET AL-NUMAN: Syrian fighter jets blasted the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan on Thursday, killing at least 49 people, including 23 children, in a further escalation of violence in the war-torn country, rescuers said.

Amid the bloodshed, UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi pressed for a truce during a key Muslim holiday later this month, while the UN's human rights chief appealed to the Security Council for unity over the crisis.

Rescuers said bombs destroyed two residential buildings and a mosque, where many women and children had been taking refuge, in the strategic northwestern town. Among those killed was a nine-month-old baby.

Rebels captured the town on October 9 in a push to create a buffer zone along the Turkish border.

“We have recovered 44 corpses from under the rubble,” one worker told an AFP correspondent at the scene.

In a makeshift field hospital, the correspondent saw at least 32 bodies wrapped in white sheets, including six children and many mutilated corpses, as well as plastic bags marked “body parts.”One child was decapitated, the correspondent said. The body of a second was pulled from the rubble while still on his bicycle.

“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.” 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 besieged Wadi Deif army base, which came under heavy bombardment by the rebels.

Later Thursday, another five people were killed during further bombardment of the town, said rebels.

In the early evening, the rebels launched what they said was a “final assault” on the base, a key depot for tanks and fuel supplies.

Hundreds of fighters attacked the base, a frontline AFP correspondent reported. Three tanks were destroyed and at least six soldiers surrendered, rebel officers said.

The base is situated two kilometres from the Damascus-Aleppo highway, of which the rebels control a stretch of several kilometres. That has severely impaired the army's ability to resupply units under fire in the northern metropolis for the past three months.

In Damascus, 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 ahead of Brahimi's arrival in Damascus to press his call for a ceasefire during the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday starting on October 26.

Speaking in neighbouring Jordan, the UN-Arab League envoy said he hoped that such a temporary ceasefire could form the basis for a longer lasting truce. The alternative would be disastrous for the whole region, he warned.

“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.

Brahimi is due to hold talks with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus on Saturday. It 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.

The envoy will also meet President Bashar al-Assad “very, very soon, but not on Saturday,” Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told AFP.

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

“I don't know whether they will all agree at the higher level or not on the ceasefire proposal, but on the ground you have pro- and anti-regime forces that do not respond to any authority,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Damascus said it was ready to discuss his proposal with Brahimi, but wanted assurances that countries with influence on the rebels would pressure them to reciprocate.

The exiled opposition said it would welcome any ceasefire but insisted it was for the government to halt its daily bombardments.

With nearly 200 people killed on Thursday across the country according to the Syrian Observatory, the death toll since March last year came to more than 34,000.

In Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay appealed for the Security Council to settle their differences over Syria. “The situation in Syria is quite simply dire,” she said.

“I urge the Security Council to speak with one voice... The longer this vicious conflict continues, the more lethal it becomes not just for Syria's own long-term future, but also for the entire region...

“I fear for Syria's children, many of whom will be scarred for life by the dreadful and prolonged traumatic experience they are suffering.”No child should have to go through what they were enduring, she added.


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