BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces continued airstrikes on the northern city of Maarat Numan in Idlib province on Tuesday, leaving an estimated 60 people dead, activists said.
Of those killed, more than 40 reportedly were civilians, including a woman and her five children, said Idlib activist Alaa Aldeen Yousef.
There was no immediate response from the government to the activists' charge, which could not be independently verified.
The air attacks by MiG fighter jets, described as some of the worst in Idlib in months, began overnight hours after Free Syrian Army rebels launched an offensive to take the city from government control by attacking several army checkpoints.
“The fighting won’t end till all the checkpoints are gone,” said Ahmad Halabi, an activist in the city. “The planning has been ongoing for two months but we were waiting to unite the ranks and get the weapons.”
For months the checkpoints have been the source of regular artillery attacks on the city, he said. But the rebel push, if successful, would do more than just put the city of more than 200,000 under opposition control.
Maarat Numan is strategically situated on the main highway linking Aleppo and the capital, Damascus. If the rebels are able to seize this part of the highway, they could in effect control the road between the Turkish border and the central city of Hama, ensuring an crucial supply line for weapons and aid, Al-Halabi said.
It would also disrupt the reinforcement of government forces and isolate the few army and security forces bases left in Idlib.
On the other side of the border, Turkey sent 25 fighter jets to reinforce an air base amid escalating tensions with Syria and after almost a week of cross-border shelling from both sides, according to the Associated Press, which quoted a Turkish news agency.
There has been growing concern that the Syrian conflict could continue to spill over its borders and turn into a regional war.
Meanwhile in the Damascus suburb of Harasta on Monday night, two suicide car bombings targeted an air force intelligence compound, the latest in a series of bombings by rebel forces targeting President Bashar Assad’s security and military buildings.
The Al Qaeda-affiliated group Jubhat Al Nusra claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on its Facebook page. The attack began with a car bomb loaded with nine tons of explosives and was followed 25 minutes later by another explosion from an ambulance rigged with one ton of explosives that responded to the scene along with other ambulances, according to the group’s statement.
Mortar attacks and a gunfight followed the twin bombings, activists said.
In another Damascus suburb on Tuesday, activists discovered 25 charred bodies in the orchards of Daraya. Mass executions of civilians, which activists say are killed at the hands of government forces, have become a regular discovery across Syria. They join daily death tolls that often top 150 victims.
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--Times staff writer