BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces shelling the besieged city of Aleppo struck a bread line outside a bakery and killed at least 10 people on Thursday, activists said.
Mohammad al-Hassan, an Aleppo-based activist who saw the aftermath of the attack, told the Associated Press by telephone that the shells struck at 6.30 a.m. when most people line up for bread — a staple that is running in short supply these days — before the day gets too hot.
"Three shells hit the street near the bakery and people who had been waiting were hit by shrapnel," he said. "There were people with their children there. It was like a river of blood."
Al-Hassan said he saw the dead bodies on the pavement and also spoke to witnesses at the scene. The two main activist groups, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, confirmed the details of the attack. The Observatory said 20 people were killed in shelling of Aleppo Thursday, including at least 10 outside the bakery.
An activist in Aleppo who identified himself by his first name only, Ibrahim, told AP by Skype that an artillery shell struck the al-Zarra bakery, the largest bakery in the Qadi Askar district. He said he had documented the names of 12 people who died there, adding there were more than 30 other unidentified bodies.
The LCC said 49 people were killed all over Aleppo on Thursday, most of them in Qadi Askar, but the group did not give a specific toll for the bread line. The differing estimates could not be immediately reconciled. Syrian activists often give conflicting figures for death tolls in Syria, where most foreign journalists are banned and authorities place heavy restrictions on the media.
A video posted by activists online showed at least two small bloodied children covered with blankets and the bodies of three men soaked with blood which ran onto the pavement. The authenticity of the video could not be verified.
Hundreds of Syrians have been killed in three weeks of intense clashes in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, as President Bashar Assad's military forces have struggled to beat back rebels who have taken over several parts of the city of 3 million.
The fighting extends to a large swath of territory north of Aleppo up to the Turkish border to the north and west, where rebels have pushed the Syrian army from a number of towns.
As the Assad regime's grip on the ground slips, it is increasingly targeting rebel areas with attack helicopters and fighter jets — weapons the rebels can't challenge.
On Wednesday, the warplanes exacted a heavy toll with airstrikes on a residential neighborhood in the rebel-held town of Azaz close to the Turkish border. International watchdog Human Rights Watch said more than 40 people were killed and at least 100 wounded, many of them women and children.
The strikes leveled the better part of a poor neighborhood and sent panicked civilians fleeing for cover. So many were wounded that the local hospital locked its doors, directing residents to drive their injured to the nearby Turkish border for treatment on the other side.
The bombardment appeared aimed at rattling the sense of control that rebels have sought to project over the northwestern corner of Syria near the Turkish border since they drove Assad's army from the area last month.
AP reporters saw nine bodies in the bombings' immediate aftermath, including a baby.
Human Rights Watch, which investigated the site of the bombing two hours after the attack, put the number at over 40.
"This horrific attack killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed a whole residential block," said Anna Neistat, the group's acting emergencies director. "Yet again, Syrian government forces attacked with callous disregard for civilian life."
HRW said two opposition Free Syrian Army facilities in the vicinity might have been targets of the Syrian aircraft.
One was the headquarters of the local Free Syrian Army brigade two streets away from the block that was hit. The other was a detention facility where the Free Syrian Army held "security detainees" — government military personnel and members of pro-government shabiha militia. Neither of these facilities was damaged in the attack.
Azaz, which is home to around 35,000 people, is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites they captured in May. On Wednesday, Lebanese media reported conflicting reports on their fate, but it was unclear whether they had been affected by the bombing.
In Damascus, the U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the Syrian conflict has "become more intense and is too often indiscriminate."
"All parties must do more to protect civilians," said Amos at the end of the three-day mission to try to open more channels for international aid inside Syria.
She observed that "the humanitarian situation has worsened" since her last visit to Syria in March, when the U.N. estimated more than 1 million people had been displaced or in need of critical humanitarian aid. "Now as many as 2.5 million are in need of assistance," she said.
Later in Beirut, Amos expressed frustration at Syria's reluctance to allow more major international aid groups into the country because of Syrian fears that relief supplies could reach rebels.
"They don't want to see that happen," she said.
France's foreign minister said that while humanitarian aid was needed, "we also need political action to achieve replacing Bashar Assad, and we need action on the ground carried out by the rebel army."
Assad is "butchering his own people and the sooner he goes the better," Laurent Fabius said during a visit to Jordan, where France has set up a military field hospital to treat Syrian refugees.
Syrian state-run TV said Assad named three new Cabinet ministers. One replaced former Health Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi, who became the new prime minister after his predecessor Riad Hijab defected to Jordan.
The other two who were replaced are the justice and industry ministers. There was no immediate indications why Assad ordered the reshuffle or whether they were related to any possible new defections. Just before Hijab's defection was announced earlier this month, he was sacked from his job by Assad.
Assad also appointed a new governor for Aleppo province,
Also on Thursday, state-run television said government troops freed three journalists who were seized last week by rebels while covering violence in a Damascus suburb.
Syria TV says the three journalists from the pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya were freed in a "qualitative operation" Thursday in the town of al-Tal just north of the capital. It did not provide further details.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the Al-Ikhbariya team was freed, amid heavy shelling on al-Tal. The group relies on a network of activists on the ground.
In another symbolic blow to Syria, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria from the group during a meeting in Saudi Arabia. The move brought a swift denunciation from Iran, Assad's main regional ally.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, criticized the decision as "unfair" because Syria was not invited to the Mecca summit, which wrapped up early Thursday. Saudi Arabia is among the chief backers of the Syrian rebels.
Associated Press writers Sarah Di Lorenzo in Paris and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.