Syrian airstrike kills dozens at bakery

December 23, 2012

Syrian airstrikes on a rebel-held town hit a bakery Sunday, killing dozens — possibly hundreds — of people who were waiting to buy bread, according to reports from anti-government activists inside Syria.

The bakery that came under attack was in the town of Halfaya, in the central Syrian province of Hama. Opposition groups gave widely varying estimates of the number of casualties, from fewer than 100 to as many as 300, with many more reported to be wounded.

Precise figures could not be verified. It was not the first time during the 21-month conflict that Syrians trying to buy bread have died in bakery bombings, human rights watchdog groups say.

Rebels have declared Hama the next big battlefield in the civil war, which has caused more than 40,000 deaths. They have launched an offensive push into the area and announced last week that they had “liberated” Halfaya.

Graphic videos appearing on opposition sites on Facebook and YouTube on Sunday showed the chaotic aftermath of the strikes on the one-story, white plaster building, where the roll-up metal door was wrenched off its hinges. Several charred corpses lay in the street, and fighters with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders dug with their hands to pull bodies from the rubble.

One man staggered away carrying a woman on his back, and several bodies were loaded into the back of a pickup truck.

Men could be heard shouting “God is great,” while women wailed in anguish. Blood stained the pavement.

Opposition activists said the bakery was the only one functioning in Halfaya. The airstrikes came as a large crowd had gathered to buy the first fresh bread available for days, activists said. The civil war has disrupted transportation and food production, causing shortages of flour and fuel throughout the country.

The strikes came in three waves, said Laith al-Hamawi, a spokesman for Syrian rebels who was reached by phone after he visited the site. The second one occurred five minutes after the first, causing more casualties, he said, and the third came 12 minutes later.

“By that time, people were trying to help the wounded, and more people were hit,” Hamawi said. “The street was like a river of blood, with bodies scattered everywhere.”

Abu Farouk al-Hamawi, an activist reached via Skype, said about 400 people had been waiting in line, most of them women and children. He estimated the death toll at close to 200 and said some people had died en route to the hospital. Halfaya has only one hospital, which functioned as a military barracks for Syrian troops before rebels took control of the town, he said.

A pro-government Web site, however, said that most of the casualties were not civilians.

A YouTube video on the site said those who died at the bakery were foreign fighters and “terrorists,” a word the government frequently uses to describe rebels. The video freezes at a point where the focus is on men wearing military-style camouflage jackets, and a subtitle identifies them as “the angels buying bread.”

As the dead were being pulled from the ruins of the bakery, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was arriving in Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday. Because the road leading to the city’s airport is the scene of intense fighting, Brahimi came overland from Beirut.

Brahimi was said to be urging a peaceful end to the conflict that is ravaging much of the country. But any suggestion that Assad step down is unlikely to find a receptive audience with the government in Damascus.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, in a news conference Sunday, dismissed the idea that a grass-roots uprising is underway, saying that the government is combating terrorists backed by foreign countries.

And he had advice for anyone saying Assad should leave office: “Forget about this.”

Ahmed Ramadan and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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