Barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters killed at least 71 civilians in Syria\’s Aleppo province Saturday, after forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad retreated from the neighbouring northwestern region of Idlib.
Insurgents now control the vast majority of Idlib after Al-Nusra Front — Al-Qaeda\’s Syrian affiliate — and its allies overran the last remaining regime-held city and surrounding villages.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "at least 71 civilians were killed, and dozens were wounded, when regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the city of Al-Bab and in Al-Shaar in east Aleppo city".
Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Britain-based monitoring group, said 12 people were killed in rebel-held Al-Shaar, including eight members of a single family.
The bodies of those slain were laid out on the streets of Al-Shaar, with the limp blood-covered hand of one of them protruding from under a blanket, said an AFP correspondent at the scene.
Bulldozers were used to clear away the rubble by civil defence volunteers.
One of them, Shahud Hussein, said the blasts were so powerful that buildings in the neighbourhood were "likely to collapse".
The other 59 civilians, all male, were killed at a market in Al-Bab, Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Al-Bab lies about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo city and is controlled by the extremist Islamic State group.
"People often gather on Saturday mornings at the Al-Hail market in Al-Bab, which is why the number of dead was so high," said Abdel Rahman.
Those killed were all male because women have much less freedom of movement in IS-controlled areas, he added.
Barrel bombs are crude weapons made of oil drums, gas cylinders or water tanks packed with explosives and scrap metal that are usually dropped from helicopters.
The Syrian government\’s use of the weapons has come under fire by rights groups, who say they are indiscriminate and often kill many civilians.
The Observatory said regime forces also dropped barrel bombs Friday in Idlib province, now under the de facto control of rebels after the Army of Conquest opposition alliance captured the city of Ariha and surrounding villages.
The brutal tactic of carrying out allegedly indiscriminate air attacks on built-up areas after battleground losses has become common for Syria\’s regime, and it has ceded swathes of territory lately.
Following defeats in Idlib\’s provincial capital and at a massive military base nearby, government forces also lost the ancient city of Palmyra to IS jihadists on May 21.
Abdel Rahman said the rebels\’ "lightning offensive" in Ariha saw a swift withdrawal of Syria\’s army and its allies from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement.
"We can\’t even say there were real clashes with the government in Ariha," he said.
In Idlib, the government still controls the Abu Duhur military airport and a sprinkling of villages and army posts.
"For the regime, the vital territory to be protected is Damascus, Homs, Hama and the coast. Idlib is no longer (vital), which explains the rapid retreat from Ariha," a security source told AFP.
The Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 with a popular uprising that descended into a complex civil war in which more than 220,000 people have been killed.
It has seen neighbours like Turkey weigh in.
On Saturday the government in Ankara described as an election ploy the release of images allegedly showing Turkish intelligence trucks delivering weapons into Syria last year.
"I said at the time it was made up of logistical aid directed for the Turkmen community in desperate need of help," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told AFP.
"The release of (the video footage) right now is an effort aimed at affecting the elections," he added.
In January 2014, security forces searched trucks near the Turkish-Syrian border on suspicion they were smuggling arms into Syria, and found personnel of Turkey\’s national intelligence service on board.