A suicide bomber detonated his bomb-rigged truck near a primary school in a Syrian Shia town on Sunday, killing at least 12 people, half of them children, as government military aircraft dropped barrels laden with explosives onto a marketplace in the north, activists said.
The suicide truck bombing occurred outside a compound of schools in the town of Umm al-Amed in the eastern province of Homs, said Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The organization obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground. Syrian state media said eight people were killed, and said 34 were wounded, mostly children.
It wasn't immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting tolls.
The bombing underscores how Syria's civil war, now in its third year, has become more sectarian.
Syria's rebels are mainly Sunni, with hard-line brigades emerging as the most powerful fighting groups. Shias and other Syrian minority groups have either stayed neutral or sided with President Bashar Assad, fearing for their future should the rebels prevail. Groups on both sides have targeted civilians.
Meanwhile, government aircraft bombed opposition-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo and its surrounding province for the eighth day in a row. Syrian military helicopters dropped four barrel bombs that exploded in a hardscrabble secondhand market in the rebel-held Masaken Hanano quarter of Aleppo, activists said.
"The medics say they are removing people in parts; they aren't sure how many they are," said Hassoun Abu Faisal, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center. He said the bombs destroyed vehicles lining a main road, destroyed a two-story building and left a crater where part of the market was.
He said medics counted 13 dead so far. Abdurrahman of the Observatory said "tens of people" likely were killed or wounded.
The barrel bombs — containers containing hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives and fuel — can be powerful but are wildly inaccurate. Human rights groups warn that even if Syrian forces are targeting rebels with the bombs, they often explode in residential areas, killing civilians.
One man showed a severed foot from the shelling, while crowds scrambled among rubble, hoarsely shouting "God is Great!" as they came across corpses, in videos uploaded to social media networks. Flames and dust from the smashed building and cars darkened the sky. One man rhythmically smashed a hammer against a jammed door of a vehicle containing charred bodies.
The videos corresponded with The Associated Press's reporting of the incident.
Three members of the same family were killed in the nearby town of Marea after a barrel bomb exploded near a school used by Syrians fleeing fighting in other areas, said Abu Faisal and the Syrian Observatory.
One small boy wept "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," as a nurse stitched a wound above his ear in a medical clinic, in a video uploaded by activists.
Another boy started blankly ahead. The face of yet another boy was covered in white powder, save for blood smeared around his nose.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders says the strikes killed some 190 people from Dec. 15 to Dec. 18 alone.
Syrian officials have not commented on the air raids in Aleppo, the country's largest city, and a major front in the war since the rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012. The city has been carved into opposition- and government-held areas. State media only said that government forces had killed "terrorists," the government byword for rebels, around the Aleppo province.
The strikes, an unusually prolonged and deadly bombardment, come ahead of peace talks scheduled to begin on Jan. 22 in Switzerland. The timing has sparked speculation that Assad may be trying to strengthen his position on the ground and expose opposition weaknesses before sitting down at the negotiating table.
Also Sunday, Syrian military aircraft bombed Bab al-Hawa, a border crossing to Turkey, said a private Turkish news agency, Dogan, and the Aleppo Media Center and the Local Coordinating Committees, two activist networks.
The news agency said the bombs hit the Syrian side of the crossing, killing or wounding several people, and that several ambulances from the Turkish town of Reyhanli were heading to the border gate to carry the wounded to hospitals. It was not immediately clear why the area was targeted.