BEIRUT -- At least 30 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed Thursday in an airstrike on the northern Syrian city of Maarat Numan, activists said.
The city, strategically located on the main highway that connects Syria's two major cities, Aleppo and Damascus, has been the site of more than a week of fierce clashes and intense shelling by government helicopters and warplanes.
Thursday's attack came a day after activists posted a video showing what they said was a government helicopter shot down by rebels near the city.
A missile fired by a MiG warplane hit a residential neighborhood about noon, destroying four buildings and four homes and damaging a nearby mosque, said opposition activist Ahmad Halabi.
Halabi described a gory scene of body parts amid rubble, making it difficult to identify victims. But he said 15 children were among the dead.
Government aircraft have increased attacks on the opposition-controlled city since last week when rebels launched an offensive to get rid of military checkpoints around Maarat Numan. On Tuesday, activists said much of one neighborhood was destroyed in the shelling.
Meanwhile, Damascus was rocked by a large explosion at 4 p.m. that struck near the Interior Ministry in the Kafar Souseh neighborhood. Video from the capital's skyline showed a large column of white smoke.
It was too early to determine whether there were casualties or damage inflicted and no one claimed immediate responsibility for the blast.
An online video shows the Damascus skyline at the moment of the explosion. A narrator is heard saying, "The Abdullah bin Al-Mubarak militia strikes the biggest security compound in Damascus in Kafar Souseh."
Activists in the city said they had not heard of the group before.
Explosions targeting government and security buildings have become increasingly common in the capital, which remains under control by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Photo: Syrian men react following an airstrike by Syrian government forces in Maaret Numaan. Credit: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images