Syria strikes kill 400 so far this month in Aleppo

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BEIRUT — Government shelling and airstrikes using makeshift barrel bombs have killed about 400 people in Syria's largest city so far this month, activists said Thursday, as U.S. and Russian envoys met in Geneva to try to revive the deadlocked peace talks.

The bombings in Aleppo are part of a campaign by President Bashar Assad's forces to wrest control of neighborhoods that were seized by rebels in the northern city since mid-2012.

They also come against reports of talks between Syrian government and U.N officials on extending the humanitarian truce in the central city of Homs to evacuate more people from the besieged rebel-held districts.

Hundreds of civilians have been evacuated from Homs since Friday when a rare cease-fire went into effect. Aid workers took advantage of the temporary truce that was implemented by the warring sides before the second round of peace talks started in Geneva this week. The cease-fire expired on Wednesday night.

Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations with the Syrian Arab red Crescent told The Associated Press that the agency's teams are on stand-by to accompany more people out of the city if the truce is extended. It is unlikely that aid workers will be able to deliver more aid to those still trapped in Old Homs, he said.

Violence, meanwhile, continued in Aleppo.

The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said at least 51 people were killed Wednesday, mainly by barrel bombs, shrapnel-packed explosive devices dropped on eight rebel-held districts from helicopters. The Observatory said that raised the total killed in the city to some 400 since the beginning of this month.

There is no way to independently verify the figure.

The Observatory, which has been documenting Syria's conflict since its start in March 2011 through a network of activists on the ground, released its report on the latest Aleppo casualties on Thursday, ahead of a trilateral meeting between senior U.S. and Russian officials and U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, and Syrian government and opposition representatives in Geneva.

A second round of talks started in Switzerland on Monday but the discussions quickly became mired in acrimony as government and opposition delegates hurled accusations for the bloodshed taking place back home, failing to even agree on the talks' agenda.

From the outset, the talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence on the ground.

The Observatory said that overall at least 4,959 people have died in Syria in the three-week period since Jan. 22, when the government and opposition delegates sat down for the first round of face-to-face meetings in Geneva. The Observatory said in a report Wednesday that the period has seen the highest death toll since the uprising against Assad started nearly three years ago.

More than 130,000 people have died in the conflict since then, activists say. Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes, some seeking shelter in neighboring countries and others in safe parts of their homeland.

Those include 400 families that have crossed into Lebanon since the Syrian army launched on offensive on rebel stronghold of Yabroud earlier this week, said Dana Sleiman, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Beirut.

Yabroud is the last rebel stronghold in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region, located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Lebanese border. Backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive there since early December.