Deadly air strike on Hama as Brahimi arrives in capital

Dozens of people were killed and several others wounded in an air strike on a bakery in Halfaya, a town under rebel control in Syria’s central Hama province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and activists on the ground said on Sunday.

“There is no way to really know yet how many people were killed. When I got there, I could see piles of bodies all over the ground. There were women and children,” said Samer al-Hamawi, an activist in Halfaya. “There are also dozens of wounded people.”

Rebel forces overran Halfaya last week as part of a greater campaign to gain ground in the 21-month-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. On Monday, an all-out assault was launched on army positions across Hama province, which has long been sympathetic to the rebels.

Another activist said locals were still sifting through the wreckage, trying to tell the dead from the wounded.

More than a thousand people were standing in line at the bakery when the strike hit, activists reported. In a country ravaged by conflict, people wait for hours to buy basics such as bread, which has been made scarce by fuel and flour shortages.

“We hadn’t received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children,” Hamawi said. “I still don’t know yet if my relatives are among the dead.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned army air strikes on bakeries earlier this year, arguing that in some incidents the military was not using enough precision to target rebel sites and in other instances may have intentionally hit civilians.

Brahimi in Damascus

The attack on Halfaya came as UN-Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in the capital Damascus to rekindle efforts to resolve the nearly two-year long crisis in the country. Brahimi, who was appointed to the job in September, has made little progress towards negotiating an end to violence, mostly because neither side appears interested in talks.

Brahimi was said to have travelled by land to Damascus from neighbouring Lebanon for the previously unannounced visit. The envoy is widely expected to sit down for talks with Assad on Monday.

The trip is Brahimi’s third to Syria in almost as many months. His last visit on October 19 lasted five days, during which time he negotiated a ceasefire between rebel and government forces in honour of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Despite pledges from both sides of the conflict, the fragile truce was quickly broken.

Earlier, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi said he was unaware that Brahimi planned to visit the country, bur reiterated calls for national dialogue.

"Only Syrians will participate in national dialogue," he said. "We tell those who do not want dialogue to engage in talks, because time is running out."

At least 44,000 people have been killed in violence across Syria since the outbreak of the anti-regime revolt in March of last year, according to the SOHR.

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