Around 1 p.m., a massive explosion destroyed the apartment block, killing civilians, including several children, in one of the city’s most densely populated neighbourhoods.
A statement from the Syrian rebels’ Aleppo Media Centre said at least 20 people were killed and listed the names of 13 of the victims.
Five were under the age of 18. The youngest was a 4-year-old girl, Najah Batita, the statement said.
The death toll was expected to rise as more bodies were pulled from the ruins in a panicked search that continued through the night, as intermittent shell blasts echoed across this ancient city.
“All my sons are dead,” wailed a woman in her 50s, cloaked in a black abaya and sitting in a white plastic patio chair on the crowded street outside a small hospital, half a block from the blast site.
“Ten of my family have been killed,” she wept, raising her palms to the grey sky. “Now we must wait to bury them.”
The rebels, who were slowly taking ground close to Aleppo’s airport when the explosion took place, said a surface-to-surface rocket had hit the apartment building. But witnesses at the scene claimed they heard at least one fighter jet over the city before the blast.
Assad’s military has fired Russian-made Scud missiles in recent weeks, striking the countryside north of Aleppo, and prompting NATO to deploy Patriot anti-missile batteries along Turkey’s southern border.
There were no signs that the poorly armed rebel forces have any heavy weapons stationed among the cluster of five- to seven-storey apartment buildings.
The district is teeming with thousands of residents, most of whom fled to escape heavy fighting in July, only to return in November to escape the harsh winter and unbearable conditions in refugee camps or villages.
Now they are trying to survive the horrors of war again. While dust still settled from the mid-afternoon explosion, several families scurried out of unscathed buildings with suitcases to escape the city once more.
After almost two years of killing, Syria’s civil war is stuck in a horrific stalemate: neither the rebels nor Assad seem able to deliver a decisive blow. So the warring sides continue to hammer each other in a bloodbath that is killing hundreds of people, mostly civilians, each day.
As dust-covered volunteer rescue workers desperately chipped away atop the mountain of rubble with a pickaxe and shovels, a large construction digger clawed at the ruin’s sprawling base.
Muhammad Shaheer, 15, said he was passing on a side street called al-Jura, alongside a large dirt lot next to the apartment building, when a huge blast rocked the area like an earthquake.
Just before the explosion, Shaheer said, he heard what he thinks was the rasp of a government MiG fighter streaking high across the city.
As clouds of concrete dust roiled above the rubble, he ran with scores of other people in the bustling district to help survivors.
“I saw 25 bodies on the street and three of them were cut to pieces,” he said through an Arabic interpreter. “Their heads and bodies were severed.”
As the frantic but largely futile rescue effort continued, Shaheer said he heard the jet circle back, terrifying people again.
“We helped three people who were still,” he said. “The others were dead. We took two women and three children, one of them five months old, from the (levelled) building.”
Shaheer pointed to the charred wreckage of a vehicle that he said was an ambulance.
“It’s burned from the rocket,” he said.
Just blocks away, near a front line in the old city that once made Aleppo a magnet for foreign tourists in search of romance, rebel fighters were gathering to join comrades.
They said there would be a nighttime push to cut off the last road leading to the government-controlled airport, which the rebels have been fighting to encircle for weeks.
The mood was upbeat, with fighters giving each other hearty bro-hugs and swapping jokes. Spotting a foreign reporter, one proudly displayed a photo of the late king of pop Michael Jackson on his cellphone.
Even as war grips Aleppo and its people wonder what will blow up next, life looks surprisingly normal in parts of the city. Vegetable carts were piled high with fresh tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant, while an adolescent boy in a puffy winter jacket and a scarf loosely tied around his neck eagerly typed a text message on his cellphone.
The blast that brought down the apartment building was so powerful it sheared walls off nearby apartments, leaving tangled air conditioners, shredded curtains, mattresses and other debris dangling from blackened holes.
A bulldozer stalled as it tried to climb the rubble heap and workers tossed a pair of pliers and other rudimentary tools back and forth as they tried to get it moving again.
A woman in a white lab coat, who said she was a doctor from the nearby hospital, stood anxiously waiting for more victims to be found.
“There are still people under the ruins,” said the woman, who identified herself only as Fatemah, 28. “But we don’t know if we can rescue them.”
At least 10 seriously injured people were in the hospital, she said.
“And they have targeted this area before.”
A local commander from the Free Syrian Army, walkie-talkie in hand, shouted for survivors trying to salvage what they could to move back, to prevent anyone tempted to loot from taking advantage of the chaos.
At 4:35 p.m., as dusk descended on the city, another loud explosion erupted from a southern section. People looked to the sky and to each other, trying to figure out where it had hit, wondering if another strike would follow.
Like a mountain climber, a rebel fighter struggled to reach the top of the rubble pile to help search for the dead or wounded.
“Allahu akbar!” a grey-bearded man shouted through a crackling bullhorn, urging him on. “God is great!”
Source: Toronto Star