At least 24 people, including four children, were killed Sunday in a second day of deadly air strikes on al-Bab in northern Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as the deputy foreign minister stressed that no solution will be implemented in the country without President Bashar Assad’s approval.
The Britain-based monitoring group said the 24 people were killed when regime helicopters dropped explosives-laden barrels on a market area of al-Bab, a day after similar attacks killed at least 26 others in the same town.
“The toll is likely to rise as dozens were wounded, some of them critically, and there are reports of victims trapped under the rubble,” said the Observatory.
The Syrian regime has regularly been accused by the opposition, foreign governments and rights groups of using so-called “barrel bombs” against civilians.
The U.S. State Department has described the weapons as “incendiary bombs which contain flammable material that can be like napalm.”
Elsewhere, the Observatory said at least five regime forces were killed overnight in a suicide car bomb attack at a police checkpoint on the Damascus-Homs highway near the contested town of Nabuk.
The group said a fighter from the jihadist al-Nusra Front carried out the attack, which came as regime forces try to gain control of Nabuk, as part of an operation to recapture the Qalamoun region.
The army has already captured the towns of Qara and Deir Attiyeh, and a Syrian security source told Agence France Presse troops now controlled 60 percent of Nabuk, which lies further south towards the capital on the Damascus-Homs highway.
The Observatory said regime warplanes carried out air strikes on the town on Sunday, and fierce fighting continued there between rebel fighters, including jihadists, and army troops backed by a pro-regime militia and Lebanon’s Hizbullah.
The Syrian regime is trying to sever rebel supply routes that run through the mountainous Qalamoun region, north of Damascus, across the nearby border with Lebanon.
The fighting has spread to nearby Maalula, a Christian town, that was attacked by rebel fighters in September.
Regime troops had succeeded in recapturing the center of the town, but rebels renewed their attacks there over the weekend “in an attempt to lessen the pressure on the terrorists encircled in Nabuk,” a Syrian security source said.
In Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, fighting pitting rebels against troops raged on, days after opposition fighters including jihadists launched a bid to break a year-long siege there.
Five rebel fighters were killed in battles there Sunday, said the Observatory.
On the political front, the deputy foreign minister said in remarks published Sunday that no solution proposed at Syria peace talks next month will be implemented without President Assad’s consent.
“The Syrian (government) delegation at Geneva will be working under Assad’s directives, and any solutions proposed will have no impact unless Assad approves of them,” Faisal Muqdad said in remarks in the Syrian press.
He lashed out at Western calls for Assad to step down, saying the president “represents Syria’s sovereignty and unity.”
The U.S.-Russian peace initiative dubbed Geneva 2, which should bring government and rebel representatives to the negotiating table in a bid to end the bloody 32-month war, is being planned for January 22.
The opposition has agreed to attend the talks on condition that they lead to a transitional phase that excludes Assad and his regime.
But government officials and their backers in Iran and Russia insist there should be no preconditions, and Assad has also said he would be willing to stand for re-election in 2014.
The proposed talks come amid rising international fears of an Islamist takeover in Syria.
According to Muqdad, “in their closed meetings, Western leaders say there is no replacement for Assad.”
He also said that at Geneva 2, “we will gather around the table and we will discuss, without foreign interference… and there will be an enlarged government.”
Muqdad reiterated his government’s “reservations about participation (in Geneva 2) by representatives of the armed terrorist groups,” the government term for rebels.
He also said opposition backer Turkey “has started to change its policy” on Syria.
Once an Assad ally, Ankara became the lead voice calling for regime change after Damascus cracked down on peaceful protests that later morphed into a bloody insurgency.
More recently, the rise of jihadism in Syria has made Turkey more cautious on the conflict raging across its southern border.
Muqdad criticized “the stupid Turkish policy which has compromised the Turkish people… by attracting al-Qaida” to its territory.
According to Ankara, 500 Turks have joined jihadist ranks in Syria.
Last week, a Turkish delegation led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Assad’s main regional backer Iran. The Turkish and Iranian diplomatic chiefs both said they would press for a ceasefire ahead of Geneva 2.