Syrian warplanes bombed an olive press factory in the country's north today, killing and wounding dozens of people, including farmers who were waiting to convert their olives to oil, activists said.

Idlib, syria

Two activist groups — the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees — say the factory is west of the city of Idlib. The LCC says at least 20 people were killed and many others wounded in the raid, while the Observatory said "tens were killed or wounded."

Both groups depend on a network of activists on the ground around the country.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been launching intense air raids on rebels in recent months, mostly in Idlib, the nearby province of Aleppo, Deir el-Zour to the east and suburbs of the capital Damascus.

The most recent air raids using cluster bombs have killed hundreds of people, including at least 11 children on Sunday in the village of Deir al-Asafir near the capital Damascus, said New York-based Human Rights Watch. Cluster bombs have been banned by most nations.

'This is mass punishment ... the regime is desperate' —Hilal Khashan, American University of Beirut, political science professor

"This attack shows how cluster munitions kill without discriminating between civilians and military personnel," said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Due to the devastating harm caused to civilians, cluster bombs should not be used by anyone, anywhere, at any time."

Airstrikes on civilians amount to "a sign of despair," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

He added that the regime forces are overstretched and the air force is being used in areas that the army cannot easily reach.

"This is mass punishment. The regime is striking at civilian areas to make the people pay a price for not standing against advancing opposition forces," Khashan said.

"The regime is desperate and wants to make the price of its opponents' victory costly."

Unclear why olive press targeted

Fadi al-Yassin, an activist based in Idlib, told The Associated Press by telephone that dozens of people had gathered to have their olives pressed when the warplanes struck, causing a large number of casualties.

It was not immediately clear why the olive press was targeted, although olive oil is a main staple in Syria, where tens of thousands of tonnes are produced annually.

"It was a massacre carried out by the regime." said al-Yassin.

"Now is the season to press oil," said al-Yassin, noting that since many olive press factories are not functioning in the area because of the fighting in the region, a large number of people were at the one near the city of Idlib.

"Functioning olive press factories are packed with people these days," he said.

More than 40,000 casualties in Syria's civil war

The Observatory also reported heavy fighting on the southern edge of the strategic rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, captured from government troops last month.


Residents stand Monday near their damaged wheat sacks after Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired missiles at a town about 600 kilometres from Damascus. (Samer Abdullah/Shaam News Network/Handout/Reuters)

The town is on the highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a commercial centre that has been the scene of clashes between rebels and troops since July.

The Observatory and al-Yassin said air raids on Maaret al-Numan killed at least five rebels.

The LCC said a shelling fell on the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp Tuesday, killing a boy and wounding another.

As well, Syria's state-run TV said a car rigged with explosives went off in the Damascus suburb of Artouz, killing at least two people and wounding four.

Syria's conflict started in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad's regime, but quickly morphed into a civil war that has since killed more than 40,000 people, according to activists.

Assad's regime blames the revolt on a foreign conspiracy. It accuses Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the United States, other Western countries and Turkey of funding, training and arming the rebels, whom it calls terrorists.