Hours after Syria troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Damascus overland from Beirut because of fighting near Damascus airport, President Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes launched their deadliest air strike of the conflict on a bakery breadline near Hama.
Dozens of people were killed in the air strike while queuing for bread in the Hama province town of Halfaya, which was seized by rebels last week in their 21-month-old revolt against Assad.
One activist in Halfaya, Samer al-Hamawi, told Reuters news agency: "There is no way to really know yet how many people were killed. When I got there, I could see piles of bodies all over the ground.
"We hadn't received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children. I still don't know yet if my relatives are among the dead."
Hamawi said more than 1,000 people had been queuing at the bakery. Shortages of fuel and flour have made bread production erratic across the country, and people often wait for hours to buy loaves.
Hamawi, who spoke to Reuters via Skype, uploaded a video of the scene that showed dozens of dust-coated bodies lined up near a pile of rubble by a concrete building, its walls blackened.
Women and children were crying and screaming as some men rushed to the scene with motorbikes and vans to carry away the victims.
Other video footage of the incident's aftermath showed graphic images of bloody bodies strewn on the road outside the bakery.
Rescuers were trying to remove some of the victims buried beneath piles of bricks and rubble.
Several badly damaged motorbikes could be seen scattered near the site of the attack, which had drawn a number of armed men to the area.
The UK-based opposition activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 50 of the wounded were in critical condition and the death toll could rise.
Rebels of the Free Syrian Army have been making a concerted push recently to take areas of Hama province.
Six days ago they declared Halfaya a "liberated area" after taking over Assad army positions there.
As has happened many times before, the Assad regime hit back with airpower at the area it lost.
Yesterday’s outrage comes as Brahimi arrived in Damascus to discuss ways to end the bloodbath.
There is no word as to when Assad would receive him.
However, Brahimi has made little progress on his troubleshooting mission. His proposed four-day truce over Eid al-Adha last October blew up within hours.
The primary demand of the rebels and the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is for Assad to go. Should that happen, the international community is hoping there may be a chance for negotiations for a peaceful transfer of power.
According to the French daily Le Figaro, Brahimi is carrying a joint U.S.-Russian plan for such a transfer of power. The plan envisages formation of a transitional government comprising ministers acceptable to the two camps.
According to the plan, Assad would fully empower the proposed transitional government, then sit on the sidelines and complete his second seven-year term of office, ending in mid-2014.
Still in dispute between the Russians and the Americans is whether Assad would be allowed to run for a third term, which he is keen on doing.
Editorially, Tariq Alhomayed, outgoing editor-in-chief of the leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, notes how fighting near Damascus airport forced the special envoy -- on his third trip to Syria since taking the post -- to arrive overland from neighboring Lebanon.
Sadly, he writes, “nothing new” awaits Brahimi in Damascus “except an added loss of time and lives.”
But Talal Salman, publisher and editor of the Beirut daily as-Safir, says: “Lakhdar Brahimi deserves a pat on the back for his resilience and insistence on seeing through his critical mission to save Syria from risks transcending its regime and threatening the unity of its people and body politic.”
The sine qua non for success of Brahimi’s mission is “an acknowledgment by the regime that it committed fatal mistakes in its handling of the crisis.
“The regime had no excuse for reneging on its reform promises, opting instead for confrontation. The result is that the regime is now fighting in the hearts of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Deir Ezzor, Deraa, Banias and elsewhere in Syria…
“The mistakes on the home front opened the door to outsiders.”
Brahimi’s task, Salman continues, is not so much to bail out the regime as to save Syria the state, its people’s unity and its role in its surroundings.