Regime fighter jets bombed the country's most populous city yesterday, according to reports from the ground, in a dramatic escalation of the conflict which drew widespread condemnation.
The aerial bombardment of eastern areas of Syria's commercial capital Aleppo, reported by a BBC correspondent in the area and activists, were the first solid claims of war planes being employed by President Bashar al-Assad to crush the 16-month uprising. It comes amid a bloody battle for the city, once a bastion of support for the regime.
"The use of fighter jets in populated areas is of great concern as it is extremely difficulty to avoid civilian casualties," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch. "The conduct of the Syrian government was already of great concern to the world, and if these reports are true it would seem things have taken an even bloodier turn."
The army appeared to be using all its firepower to wrest back control of rebel held areas in Aleppo, and its coordinated attack began with an artillery barrage on the district of Tariq al-Bab at around 4.30pm with around 30 shells falling in 10 minutes, according to the BBC. Fighter jets then swept in and hit rebel held areas, it said, adding that "dozens" had been killed. Activists said that Russian-made MiG-21 fighter jets had been used in the raid.
The assault came as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) attempted to extend its control of the city, pushing towards the centre, after taking the district of Salaheddine last week. Footage filmed by activists also showed helicopter gunships swooping over the city.
Russia yesterday joined Western nations in urging Assad not to use chemical weapons, reminding Syria that it ratified a protocol that bars the use of poisonous gases in war in 1968. It came a day after the regime admitted for the first time it had stockpiles and said it would deploy them in an external attack,
Aleppo, near the Turkish border, would be a key strategic win for the opposition, which controls parts of the surrounding countryside. Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Aqidi, an FSA commander in Aleppo, said he planned to make the city "our Benghazi" – the city in Libya from which rebel forces launched its successful assault to bring down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – vowing to drive out "Assad gangs".
Videos posted on line showed the heavy price the city had paid yesterday, with heavily blood-stained street, buildings partially reduced to rubble and shoes abandoned in the road.
The security forces put down a rebellion in the city's prison overnight, according to activists, with the Local Coordination Committees saying at least 15 people had been killed.
Regime forces also fired tear gas and live rounds into Homs Central Prison in the early hours of yesterday morning after inmates took control of the jail, according to activists and FSA sources.
Prisoners, who had barricaded themselves in, fled to the rooftop, but remained in control of the building yesterday. Activist network Avaaz said three people had been confirmed dead.
Syria's prisons are bursting at the seams with political prisoners who have been rounded up since the beginning of the uprising against Assad's rule. Around 6,000 inmates in Homs jail began protesting on Saturday, according to Fahad al-Masri, a spokesman for the FSA.
"At the same moment there were defections of guards in the prison who killed the prison manager," he said, adding that FSA forces had been fighting the army in the area for several days to prevent them entering, fearing they may stage a massacre in retribution.