Eighteen dead as rebel-held district ‘hit by Syrian barrel bombs’

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Government helicopter gunships have bombed the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, killing at least 18 people and wounding dozens, activists said.

The bombings came even as Syrian president Bashar Assad vehemently denied in an interview with Portuguese state television that his military drops such explosives, known as barrel bombs, on civilians.

“You are talking about massive propaganda,” Assad said in the interview.

The aerial attack on a rebel-held neighbourhood was in apparent reprisal for an attack that was carried out one day before by opposition fighters against a building used by the government’s state intelligence services.

Syrian aircraft have dropped hundreds of barrel bombs over the course of the civil war, killing thousands of civilians and causing widespread destruction. The crude tactic – which often involves hurling explosive-filled canisters from helicopters – has been widely criticised by human rights groups because the bombs are not precise.

An Aleppo-based activist who goes by the name Abu Raed said one barrel bomb struck a shop that sells fuel. He said a fire broke out and that many bystanders were burned.

Abu Raed said the strike on the Qadi Askar neighbourhood killed at least 20 people, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at 18 dead.

The aerial attack comes after the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, and other radical Islamic factions launched an assault on the intelligence building in Aleppo, blowing up part of the facility before trying to storm it.

“This is revenge,” Abu Raed said, referring to the air strikes.

Syria’s crisis, which began in March 2011, has killed more than 220,000 people, a figure that was disputed by Assad.

“It’s a human disaster we live in Syria,” he said in the interview.

He predicted that the 5,000 moderate rebels that the US hopes to train to fight against Islamic State will eventually join the militants. Last month, the US defence department said that the US has screened about 1,200 moderate Syrian rebels to participate in training in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.