A nine-day intensive "barrel bomb" assault on Aleppo and other northern towns by President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime has killed hundreds of civilians and cast renewed doubt over next month's peace talks.
Reports by several counts put the number of civilians killed by shelling and by barrels packed with TNT and shrapnel at more than 300. But an activist claimed that 480 were dead.
He and the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights both counted 86 children among the victims. Distressing photographs of the bloodied bodies of infants have begun circulating on the internet, some posted by Aleppo doctors. Many are too gruesome to be published.
In other pictures, children are seen queueing for treatment at the city's makeshift clinics, caked in blood and dust. In yet another video, said to have been taken of a school in the town of Marea north of Aleppo, children are seen being pulled from the rubble.
After months in which the fighting on the ground has taken second place in international analysis to fears of the rise of al-Qa'ida in the rebel ranks and the chances of reaching some sort of political compromise at the "Geneva 2" peace talks, the scale of the suffering has forced the tactics of Assad's forces back to centre stage.
William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, said: "I condemn the use of brutal and indiscriminate weapons in densely populated civilian areas, such as we have seen in Aleppo in recent days."
Last night the opposition Syrian National Coalition said it would not attend the planned peace talks in Geneva unless the bombing of Aleppo ceased.
Human Rights Watch said the attacks were illegal under international law.
"Government forces have really been wreaking disaster, killing men, women, and children alike," said Ole Solvang, a senior emergencies researcher.
"The Syrian air force is either criminally incompetent, doesn't care whether it kills scores of civilians -- or deliberately targets civilian areas."
Despite repeated talk of Mr Assad having turned the tide of the war with the support of Iran, Hizbollah and Iraqi Shia militias, advances in one area have often been matched by retreat in others. The Syrian army has failed to make good its promise of retaking Aleppo and has lost ground in recent days, according to activists. "I believe that the regime is taking revenge on Aleppo after it failed in its military campaign," said a spokesman for the Al-Shams news agency in Aleppo.
Both Hizbollah and the Iraqi militias have concentrated fighting on areas of Damascus and Homs provinces with large populations of the Shia minority and Mr Assad has never been able to muster sufficient numbers of his own troops to sustain an assault on the northern front. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Richard Spencer, Cairo