ANTAKYA, Turkey — Government airstrikes on a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, killed more than 80 people and wounded about 200 on Sunday, according to local activists and monitoring organizations.
The attacks came one day after the area’s largest rebel group, the Islam Army, announced a new offensive against government forces in a neighboring suburb. While it was unclear if the two attacks were linked, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has often bombed communities where the insurgents hold sway, killing civilians in an attempt to undermine the rebel cause.
Residents said Sunday’s attack struck a crowded market area in the city of Douma, northeast of the capital, leaving streets strewn with rubble, scattered merchandise and destroyed cars. Anti-government activists in the area posted videos online of blood-covered victims being raced to local clinics and rows of dead bodies lined up for burial.
The death toll in Douma puts the episode among the deadliest air attacks during more than four years of conflict in Syria, in which more than a quarter million people have been killed and about half the population has been displaced, according to the United Nations.
Supporting Mr. Assad is a mix of army units, militias and militants from Hezbollah in Lebanon, who consider Mr. Assad a key ally.
They are fighting a rebel movement made up of an array of groups, including hard-line Islamists and fighters from Al Qaeda. And the extremists of the Islamic State have taken advantage of the chaos to seize much of the country’s north and west for their self-declared caliphate, which extends into Iraq.
While Mr. Assad’s government has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes on rebel-held areas, such high casualties from single incidents have grown less common as the military has focused its resources on key battles.
Douma has been out of government control for years and is now a stronghold for the Islam Army.
On Saturday, the group announced an offensive on government positions in the neighboring suburb of Harasta and published a video of its fighters on the attack.
Syrian state news media did not mention the attack on Douma on Saturday, but a military source told Reuters that the air force had carried out strikes in Douma and Harasta that targeted the Islam Army’s headquarters.
A paramedic reached in Douma through Facebook said that more than 80 were killed and more than 200 were wounded in a series of raids, flooding the town’s medical clinic and forcing it to send victims to facilities farther away.
“Words can’t describe the tragedy,” said the medic, who gave only his first name, Muhannad, for security reasons.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain though a network of contacts in Syria, reported similar numbers.
Also on Sunday, a United States-backed rebel group said that seven of its fighters who had been taken captive in northern Syria by the Nusra Front, the local affiliate of Al Qaeda, had been released.
The captives were from a group called Division 30 that was formed this year to take part in a program run by the United States Department of Defense to train and equip rebels to fight the Islamic State.
But the program has stumbled out of the gate. It has graduated fewer than 60 fighters so far, and the Nusra Front last month captured a number of Division 30’s members and then attacked its base, vowing to battle any American effort to build a Syrian force.
In a statement distributed online on Sunday, Division 30 said the Nusra Front had released seven of its fighters, calling this “a noble step by our brothers in the Nusra Front.” Two of the group’s top officers are still being held.
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(via NY Times)