BEIRUT - A Syrian government airstrike on a town in the country's northwest killed at least 18 people Saturday, shattering store fronts, setting cars ablaze and sending a giant plume of black and gray smoke over the horizon.
President Bashar Assad's air force has been one of his biggest assets in the 2-year-old civil war and he has used warplanes and helicopters to try to check rebel advances, although the regime also frequently hits civilian areas.
A Human Rights Watch report this week accused the Syrian government of committing war crimes by using indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians, killing at least 4,300 people since the summer.
Saturday's air raid struck the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group. The Observatory said four of the 18 people killed in the attack were members of the same family. Many others were wounded and the death toll was expected to rise, the Observatory said.
Amateur videos posted online showed a giant plume of black smoke, and people in cars and on motorbikes racing to help the wounded. A group of men could be seen carrying a wounded man covered in gray dust. Another man in the video rushes with a bucket of water to help extinguish cars in flames. Rubble and twisted metal litter the street.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting by The Associated Press of the events depicted.
Rebels have wrested much of the countryside of Idlib and other provinces in northern Syria from regime forces, although government troops still control many military bases in the region from which they launch attacks - including airstrikes - on opposition-held areas.
South of Saraqeb, Syrian government troops trying to relieve a besieged military base ambushed a rebel checkpoint, killing at least 12 opposition fighters.
The Observatory said the government forces surprised the rebel fighters on the outskirts of the village of Baboulein. The Observatory, which relies on a network of local activists on the ground, said many opposition fighters were also wounded in the attack.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said the assault was part of government efforts to resupply the embattled military base at Wadi Deif outside of the town of Maaret al-Numan, which is just north of Baboulein on the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
Rebels have been trying for months to capture the large base at Wadi Deif, from which regime troops regularly pound the now largely abandoned town of Maaret al-Numan with artillery fire. The regime must push convoys through rebel-held territory to prevent the base from running short of troops and supplies.
On Thursday, activists said rebels shot down a helicopter carrying food and supplies to the base, killing the pilot and three other soldiers.
In the northern city of Aleppo, a government air raid on the disputed Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood killed at least four people and wounded more than a dozen others, the Observatory said. It added that doctors treating the wounded said many showed symptoms of inhaling toxic gas, such as severe vomiting and irritation to the nose and eyes.
Both sides in the Syrian civil war have accused the other of using chemical weapons.
Syria has asked the U.N. to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack by rebels in March on the village of Khan al-Assal outside of Aleppo. The rebels blame regime forces.
Britain and France want the U.N. to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Khan al-Assal and another village, Ataybah, on March 19, as well as the central city of Homs on Dec. 23.
Syria has rejected U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's push to expand the U.N. probe to include those other villages.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests but has since devolved into a civil war that the United Nations says has killed at least 70,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge abroad, and millions more have fled their homes to try to find safety elsewhere inside
International efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict have faltered. U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is scheduled to address the U.N. Security Council on Thursday. Brahimi has not been able to make progress in his mission to push forward a peace plan for Syria first presented in June at an international conference in Geneva.
On Saturday, Syrian state-run daily Al-Thawra accused Brahimi of being a "false witness." The daily said he had taken sides in the conflict and that his briefing "will not alleviate the suffering of Syrians."
Brahimi angered the Syrian government in December by saying that the four-decade rule of the Assad family had gone on "too long."
In Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry said that four Italian journalists who had been detained in Syria since April 4 have been freed. The ministry did not specify who had detained them, or disclose details of their release.
Italian media have reported that the four were a RAI public television reporter and three freelancers who had entered Syria earlier this month with the intention of working by day in Syria and crossing into Turkey in the evening. They were reportedly detained in a rebel-controlled area in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.
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