BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian government airstrike hit a crowded vegetable market in a rebel-held neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, killing at least 21 people, activists said.
For nearly two weeks, President Bashar Assad's warplanes and helicopters have pounded opposition-controlled areas of the divided city. Activists say the aerial assault has killed more than 400 people since it began Dec. 15.
The campaign comes in the run-up to an international peace conference scheduled to start Jan. 22 in Switzerland to try to find a political solution to Syria's civil war. Some observers say the Aleppo assault fits into Assad's apparent strategy of trying to expose the opposition's weakness to strengthen his own hand ahead of the negotiations.
Saturday's airstrike slammed into a marketplace in the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood, the Aleppo Media Center activist group and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said 25 people, including four children, were killed and dozens were wounded in the strike. The Aleppo Media Center published a list of 21 names of people it said were killed in the air raid.
The discrepancy could not be immediate reconciled, but differing death tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of such attacks.
An activist with the Aleppo Media Center, Hassoun Abu Faisal, said the airstrike took place around 10 a.m. local time when the market was packed with shoppers.
"Cars were damaged, debris and rubble are everywhere," he said via Skype. "Many of the wounded have lost limbs."
One amateur video posted online showed scenes of carnage: a body, its legs twister under it, lying in a pool of blood in front of a smashed car; the body of another man ripped in half in the middle of the street; men rushing a limp body past shattered storefronts.
In another video, blankets cover at least three bodies placed on a sidewalk. Muddy black shoes poke out from under one of the blankets.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events depicted.
Both Abu Faisal and the Observatory reported airstrikes in other opposition-held areas of Aleppo, including Myassar, although there was no immediate word on casualties.
Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been a major front in the country's civil war since rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012. The city has been heavily damaged since then in fighting that has left it divided into rebel- and government-controlled areas.
At the Vatican, meanwhile, a Syrian delegation delivered a message from Assad to Pope Francis during a meeting with the Holy See's No. 2 Secretary of State, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Vatican said. It did not disclose the contents of the Syrian leader's message, nor the pope's reaction.
The pontiff has called for an end to the hostilities in Syria, most recently on Christmas.
Associated Press writers Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.