BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian government has carried out indiscriminate air bombardments and artillery strikes on residential areas that do not target opposition fighters or military objectives, and instead appear aimed solely at punishing civilians seen as sympathetic to rebel forces, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
Much of the recent fighting has centered on the contested city of Aleppo, but the London-based group said hundreds of civilians in other parts of northern and central Syria have been killed or injured in recent weeks, many of them children, in attacks that struck people in their homes, in the street or while trying to shelter from the bombings.
The conclusions were published in an Amnesty report that followed a visit to Syria by senior crisis researcher Donatella Rovera, who traveled to 26 towns and villages in the Jabal al-Zawiya area and other parts of the northern Idlib and north Hama regions between Aug. 31 and Sept. 11.
The 18-month conflict between the regime of President Bashar Assad and his opponents began with peaceful protests that were attacked by government security forces, and has since evolved into a civil war. Activists say at least 23,000 people have died, many of them civilians who fell victim to the regime onslaught, although rebel factions have also been accused of summary executions and other abuses.
Assad's regime, which has been subject to international condemnation, says it is fighting terrorism led by foreign fighters. The regime counts Iran and Russia among its few allies.
The Amnesty report included criticism of opposition fighters for alleged violations of human rights, saying both sides have operated in and launched attacks from residential areas, thereby increasing the risk to civilians. But it focused mostly on the conduct of the regime, noting that random bombardments suggested that the aim of the strikes "may be to punish residents of towns and villages which are now under the de-facto control of opposition forces."
The report said unguided bombs dropped from the air and imprecise artillery shells and mortars are now being used daily against residential areas, significantly increasing the number of civilian casualties.
"Such indiscriminate attacks violate fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law, as they fail to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects," it added.
The Amnesty report detailed incidents of indiscriminate attacks in other parts of northern Syria that killed civilians in areas where there were no armed confrontations or activities by opposition fighters at the time of the attacks.
In an incident on Aug. 14, four children aged 18 months to 11 years, were killed when an aircraft dropped a bomb on their home in the village of Shellakh, near Idlib, collapsing the second floor onto the first floor, where the children were sleeping and playing.
With nowhere safe, villagers often shelter in old, overcrowded caves for protection from the air bombardments and shelling, Amnesty said. Some families have been digging makeshift underground shelters near their homes.