BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian warplanes bombed an olive oil factory packed with farmers Tuesday, killing at least 20 people in the latest regime strike to rip through a crowd of civilians, activists said.
The bombing comes as the civil war takes a devastating toll on an already beleaguered population. Human Rights Watch said it found "compelling evidence" that the regime used cluster bombs in an airstrike that killed at least 11 children earlier this week.
It was not immediately clear whether the olive press was the intended target, or if the plane misfired. The government generally does not comment on rebel claims and there was no official reaction to the latest allegations.
But two anti-regime activist groups — the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees — said the factory was hit Tuesday near the northern city of Idlib.
The Observatory said "tens were killed or wounded," while the LCC said at least 20 people were killed. Syria restricts independent media coverage, making it difficult to determine the exact toll.
Both groups depend on a network of activists on the ground around the country.
President Bashar Assad's regime has been relying on air power in recent months, mostly in the northern province of Idlib, the nearby province of Aleppo, Deir el-Zour to the east and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the air force is being used in areas that the overstretched army cannot easily reach.
"This is mass punishment," Khashan said. "The regime is desperate and wants to make the price of its opponents' victory costly."
Olive oil is a main staple in Syria. Tens of thousands of tons are produced annually.
Fadi al-Yassin, an activist based in Idlib, told The Associated Press by telephone that dozens of people had gathered to have their olives pressed when the warplanes struck, causing a large number of casualties.
"Now is the season to press oil," said al-Yassin, noting that many olive press factories are not functioning because of the fighting in the region. "Functioning olive press factories are packed with people these days."
Also Tuesday, Syria's air force targeted a village in northeastern Hasekah province as well as the town of Harim, in Idlib province, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency.
At least four people wounded in Hasekah were taken to neighboring Turkey for treatment.
An AP reporter on the Turkish side of the border, across from Harim, saw smoke rising from the town.
The conflict in Syria started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. The conflict quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, some 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
Assad blames the revolt on a conspiracy to destroy Syria, saying the uprising is being driven by foreign terrorists — not Syrians seeking change. On Tuesday, the pro-government daily Al-Watan published a list with names of 142 Arab and foreign terrorists it said were killed in Syria in recent months. Continued...