Syrian airstrike kills dozens at bakery

ANTAKYA, Turkey — A Syrian airstrike on a rebel-held town hit a bakery Sunday, killing dozens, possibly hundreds, of people were waiting to buy bread, according to reports from anti-government activists inside Syria.

The bakery that came under attack was in the town of Halfaya in the central Syrian province of Hama. Different opposition groups offered widely varying estimates of the total number of casualties, running from under 100 to as high as 300, with many more wounded. More precise figures could not be verified.

Though not the first time that Syrians have died while trying to buy when bakeries were bombed, this airstrike potentially marks the highest death toll yet of any single incident in the 21-month conflict.

Rebels have declared Hama the next big battlefield in the civil war that has caused more than 40,000 deaths so far, and launched an offensive push into the area. Last week, they announced that they had “liberated” Halfaya.

Graphic videos appearing on opposition sites on Facebook and YouTube showed the chaotic aftermath of the airstrike on the one-story building, where the roll-up metal door was wrenched off its hinges. Several charred bodies lay lifeless in the street, and fighters with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders pulled more bodies from concrete rubble. One man staggered away carrying a woman on his back. In the background, men shouted “God is great,” while women wailed in anguish.

Opposition activists said the bakery was the only one functioning in Halfaya, and a large crowd had gathered to buy the first fresh bread available for days.

The airstrikes came in three waves, said Laith Al Hamawie, a spokesman for Syrian rebels who was reached by phone after he visited the site. The second one occurred five minutes after the first, causing more casualties, he said, and the third strike was 12 minutes later.

“By that time, people were trying to help the wounded and more people were hit,” he said. “The street was like a river of blood with bodies scattered everywhere.”

Abu Farouk Al Hamawie, an activist reached on Skype, said about 400 people had been waiting in line, most of them women and children. He estimated the death toll approached 200, and said some had died en route to the hospital. Halfaya has only one hospital that had been functioning as a military barracks for Syrian troops before rebels took control of the town, he said.

A pro-government Web site, however claimed that most of the casualties were not civilians.

A YouTube video on the site said that the people who died at the bakery were actually foreign fighters and “terrorists,” a word the government frequently uses to describe rebels.

The video freezes at a point where the focus is on men wearing military-style camouflage jackets, and a subtitle sarcastically identifies them as “the angels buying bread.”

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