BEIRUT: Syrian warplanes pounded a strategic northern city with three airstrikes Tuesday as ground troops pushed forward in an intensified effort to recapture the area recently taken by rebels, activists said.
The airstrikes targeted Maaret al-Numan, located on the highway connecting Syria's two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus. It was captured by rebels on Oct. 10 and in the weeks since, the regime has subjected the city and the area around it to heavy air bombardments.
The rebel hold on Maaret al-Numan has disrupted the regime's ability to send supplies and reinforcements to Aleppo, where government forces have been bogged down since July in a bloody fight for control of Syria's largest city. Rebel advances over the past week in Aleppo have added urgency to opening the route.
"The regime wants to recapture Maaret al-Numan because it links Damascus with Aleppo," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "It is a very strategic city." He said ground troops were fighting rebels on the southern edge of the city, 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Aleppo, and added that reinforcements were being sent to the rebel side in the city from nearby Hama province.
President Bashar Assad's air force unleashed scores of airstrikes around the country on Monday and anti-regime activists said it was the most widespread bombing in a single day since the uprising began 19 months ago. Maaret al-Numan was among the hardest hit places on Monday as well.
The death toll for what was supposed to be a four-day cease-fire ending Monday exceeded 500, and activists speculated that the government's heavy reliance on air power reflected its inability to roll back rebel gains, especially in the north of the country near the border with Turkey's where rebels have control of swathes of territory.
Anti-regime activist say more than 35,000 people have been killed since the uprising started in March 2011.
In Tuesday's air raids on Maaret al-Numan, the Observatory said four people, three of them young girls, were killed.
An amateur video showed the three girls draped in white death shrouds, in compliance with Islamic practice, and two of them had had blood on their faces. The narrator identified two of them as Shahad and Sidra Homsi, as a man wrote their names on their chest. It was not clear whether the two girls were sisters. Next to them, a dead man with a white beard was on the floor and a man, believed to be his son, washed blood from his face with water. The man could be heard saying: "Go to heaven dad. May God take your revenge."
The videos could not be independently verified because of reporting restrictions in Syria, but they appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll from the airstrikes and ground fighting at 19. Discrepancies in casualty tolls are frequent because of restrictions on independent reporting and the chaos on the ground.
There were also reports of new violence around the capital Damascus.
State-run Syrian TV said air force Maj. Gen. Abdullah Mahmoud al-Khalidi was assassinated in the restive neighborhood of Rukn Eddine. The TV did now say how or when he was killed although such an attack could be seen as retaliation against air force officers for air raids that have been used increasingly since summer.
The LCC and the Observatory reported air raids on several suburbs of Damascus including the areas of Arbeen, Zamalka and Douma.
Syrian troops and rebels clashed in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, activists said. The LCC and the Observatory said the fighting broke out after midnight, but they had no word on casualties. Palestinian refugees in Syria tried to stay on the sidelines when the uprising began. But many Palestinian youths have joined the fight as they became enraged by mounting violence and moved by Arab Spring calls for greater freedoms.
The U.N. envoy to Syria tried to broker a cease-fire to coincide with the four days of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which ended on Monday. But the truce never took hold and violence continued apace through the weekend.
In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed "great sadness" that the cease-fire did not hold. He said Turkey, which was once a strong ally of Assad, will not engage in a dialogue with the Syrian government.
"Unfortunately the attacks continued and the Syrian people spent the holidays suffering great pain," Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara. "There would be no meaning to forging a dialogue with a regime that pressed ahead with such a massacre even during the holidays."