BEIRUT — Syrian rebels launched an offensive in the northern province of Aleppo on Thursday, as government airstrikes killed at least 11 people in an opposition-held neighborhood of the provincial capital, activists said.
For nearly two months, President Bashar Assad's forces have waged a relentless and deadly aerial campaign against the city of Aleppo, which has allowed his troops to make modest inroads in recent weeks in rebel-controlled areas of the divided city. It has also fueled speculation that the government is laying the foundations for a large-scale attack to try to wrest back control of the neighborhoods it lost some 18 months ago.
In the past five days alone, airstrikes with so-called barrel bombs have killed at least 246 people, including 73 children, in Aleppo, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday. The makeshift bombs — barrels or storage container packed with explosives, fuel and scrap metal — inflict massive damage upon impact.
The government has shown no sign of easing it aerial bombardment of the city. The Aleppo Media Center activist group reported at least seven airstrikes on opposition neighborhoods Thursday, including one on the Masaken Hanano district that killed 14 people.
The Observatory put the death toll at 11, although such discrepancies in casualty figures are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria.
The rebel offensive, announced Thursday by several fighting brigades, is targeting the Kweiras military air base east of the city of Aleppo. Opposition fighters have been trying to capture the facility for months.
The groups taking part in the operation include the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven ultraconservative opposition brigades, as well as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and other rebel factions.
In the statement announcing the offensive, the groups called on civilians to steer clear of checkpoints and military facilities for the next 24 hours.
Syria's revolt began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests before slowly shifting into a civil war. The conflict has killed more than 130,000 people, forced more than 2.3 million to seek refuge abroad, and sent sectarian tensions soaring across the region.
Late last month, Assad's government and the main Western-backed opposition group met in Switzerland for the first face-to-face peace talks of the war. The tumultuous week-long negotiations ended without making any significant progress, even on humanitarian issues.
The U.N. has proposed holding a second round of discussions, which are envisioned to begin Monday. The opposition Syrian National Coalition, which dithered for months about taking part in the opening session, already has agreed to attend.
The Syrian government, however, is still on the fence.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a close political and media adviser to Assad, told Syrian state television in an interview late Wednesday that the government is still evaluating last month's negotiations and has not decided whether to take part in the proposed new round of discussions.
Shaaban did not disclose when a decision would be made, only saying that the delegation is waiting on instructions from Syria's leadership.
Despite Damascus' dithering, Assad's chief ally, Russia, expressed confidence earlier this week that the Syrian government would indeed return to the U.N.-hosted peace talks in Geneva.
The negotiations aim to broker a political solution to Syria's civil war. The conflict has killed more than 130,000 people, forced more than 2.3 million to seek refuge abroad, and sent sectarian tensions soaring across the region.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.
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