Airstrike on Syrian market kills at least 21 people

Airstrike on Syrian market kills at least 21 people

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.

Another critical battleground is around the capital, Damascus.

Mr Assad’s forces have a tight grip on the heart of the city, but many of the suburbs have been opposition strongholds since the early days of the uprising.

In a grueling campaign that has lasted months, government forces have managed to capture some of the rebel-held towns and villages ringing Damascus, while others have held out despite daily shelling and months-long sieges.

One such town is Moadamiyeh, which activists say has been strangled by a government siege for nearly a year.

Mr Assad’s troops have set up checkpoints around the community west of Damascus, and have barred entry to food, clean water and fuel in a bid to pressure residents to expel rebels from the town.

The blockade has had a devastating effect on those stuck inside.

For months, activists in Moadamiyeh have warned that malnutrition is rife among the town’s estimated 8,000 civilians.

They say at least two women and four children died of hunger-related illnesses by September.

This week, residents reached a deal with the army that would see the town receive food in exchange for raising the government flag over Moadamiyeh.

The agreement also demanded rebels hand over their heavy weapons and that only registered residents may remain in the town.

Locals hoisted the flag above Moadamiyeh Thursday.

Late Saturday afternoon, three small pickup trucks entered with bread, rice and canned food, said Moadamiyeh-based activist Qusai Zakarya.

“It’s very, very small shipment. We have over 8,000 civilians. They have brought in around three tons of food,” he said.

“This amount of food won’t be enough for 1,000 civilians for one day.”

He said residents want the government to allow large, continuous shipments of food such as flour, rice and canned goods, so the town can store the items in case the supply line is cut.

He alleged the government agreed to the deal in order to improve its image ahead of peace talks expected next month in Switzerland, but said it would only send small shipments so that it can maintain its hold over Moadamiyeh.

He also said faith in the government to carry out its end of the deal was running low after the army attacked the town Friday, sparking a six-hour battle with rebels that ended with Mr Assad’s forces pulling back.

“We know that we cannot trust the regime to have continuous food entering the town. They might change their minds at any second,” Mr Zakarya said.

“They are just trying to make these sorts of arrangements before going to Geneva to tell the world, ‘look, I have solved this problem.'”

There was no immediate comment from Syrian officials.

Rights groups have accused the government of using starvation as a weapon of war, and the UN Security Council issued an appeal in October for immediate access to all areas of Syria to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Also Saturday, the UN-backed international mission to rid Syria of its chemical weapons confirmed that it is unlikely to meet a December 31 deadline to transport the most critical chemical material out of the country.

A statement by the joint mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN said that external factors, primarily security concerns, were responsible for the delay.

At the Vatican, meanwhile, a Syrian delegation delivered a message from Mr 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.