Airstrikes destroy building in Aleppo, Syria

Smoke rises from a building hit in Syrian government airstrikes in the northern city of Aleppo. (Aleppo Media Center / December 22, 2013)

Syrian government airstrikes pounded the country's northern province of Aleppo for a ninth straight day Monday, killing more than 50 people as residents braced for more bombings, activists said.

The sustained air offensive has left 300 to 500 people dead and thousands injured, according to human rights groups and activists.

"We are trying to prevent people from gathering. People are walking under the balconies so they are not visible from the sky," said Khalid Omar, a pharmacist in the city of Aleppo. "People are walking and constantly looking up, expecting a rocket at any moment."

Human Rights Watch called the offensive "the most intense aerial attacks in Aleppo to date." Opposition forces say the government of President Bashar Assad has been trying to regain ground from rebels, especially in Aleppo and the Syrian capital, Damascus, ahead of peace talks expected to begin in Geneva on Jan. 22.

State media described the attacks as "precise operations" targeting terrorists — the term the government uses to describe rebels and opposition activists — in a number of Aleppo's neighborhoods and suburbs.

An opposition provincial council on Sunday announced school closures for 10 days after two schools were attacked during the offensive. Earlier that day, a bomb landed near an elementary school in the northern town of Marea, killing four people, a resident said.

"No one gets accustomed to death, it's hard," said Bashir Saleh, a spokesman for Al Tawheed Brigade in Marea. "Given that there are planes in the sky, people's eyes are always turned upward."

Riyad Hussein, an activist in the city of Aleppo, estimated that dozens of barrel bombs, oil drums filled with explosives, had been dropped on Aleppo province in the last nine days.

"The planes are always over Aleppo; they come out from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. One helicopter carries two barrel bombs; it drops both and then another comes in its place," he said. "It's random."

At night, warplanes make frequent passes, attacking with automatic weapons, he said.

The offensive comes as winter has worsened living conditions. Extended electricity outages have gone on longer than usual since the air attacks began.

Omar, administrative head of the Union of Free Medicine in Aleppo province, was on his way to Turkey on Monday to secure more emergency medicine and medical supplies.

"From the second day [of the offensive] we ran out of medicine," he said. "We began using underwear instead of gauze. We were amputating legs without anesthesia. We would tell the patient, 'You will just have to bear it.' "

Hospitals across the rebel-held parts of the city and the suburbs, which were already suffering from dwindling medical supplies, have been unable to keep up with the flow of victims, he said. Ambulances have been able to transport only about a dozen wounded a day to Turkey because of a lack of gasoline.

Opposition and human rights groups reported that the vast majority of those killed were civilians, as most of the targets were residential or business areas far from rebel headquarters or bases.

The attacks either missed possible military targets or probably didn't have any intended military objective, according to Human Rights Watch.

"Government forces have really been wreaking disaster on Aleppo in the last month, killing men, women and children alike," Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Friday. "The Syrian air force is either criminally incompetent, doesn't care whether it kills scores of civilians or deliberately targets civilian areas."

Russia last week blocked a proposed United Nations Security Council statement expressing outrage over Syrian government airstrikes, especially the Aleppo onslaught, the Associated Press reported. The proposed statement was subsequently dropped.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the United States condemned the assault on civilians and remained committed to helping end the bloodshed.

"The Syrian government must respect its obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population," Carney said in a statement.

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com