ALEPPO - A series of barrel bombs dropped from Syrian regime helicopters killed at least 45 civilians and wounded dozens Saturday in the northern province of Aleppo, a monitoring group said.

“At least 45 civilians were killed, and dozens were wounded, when regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the city of Al-Bab and in an eastern neighbourhood of Aleppo,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the bombs on Aleppo city struck the rebel-held eastern neighbourhood of Al-Shaar, killing 12 people including eight members of a single family.

The bodies of those killed were wrapped and laid out on the streets of Al-Shaar, with the limp, blood-covered hand of one of them protruding from under a blanket, said an AFP correspondent at the scene.  Bulldozers were used to clear away the rubble by civil defence volunteers. The other 33 civilians, all male, were killed at a market in Al-Bab, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Al-Bab lies about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo city and is controlled by the extremist Islamic State group. “People often gather on Saturday mornings at the Al-Hail market in Al-Bab, which is why the number of dead was so high,” said Abdel Rahman. Those killed were all male because women have much less freedom of movement in IS-controlled areas, he added.

The Observatory said the death toll in Al-Bab was likely to rise, as many wounded civilians were in critical condition and another 18 were still unaccounted for. Barrel bombs are crude weapons made of oil drums, gas cylinders or water tanks packed with explosives and scrap metal that are usually dropped from helicopters. The Syrian government’s use of the weapons has come under fire by rights groups, who say barrel bombs are indiscriminate and often kill many civilians. Elsewhere, at least six regime loyalist forces were killed and 10 wounded in an explosion Friday night in Tadamon, south of the Syrian capital, said the Observatory. The neighbourhood has seen an influx of refugees from nearby Yarmuk, after IS militants overran the Palestinian camp in April. Moreover, A Syrian air force raid killed at least 59 civilians at a market in a town held by Islamic State militants in northern Syria on Saturday, according to a group monitoring the war.

The strike on the town of al-Bab, northeast of the city of Aleppo, used “barrel bombs” - steel drums full of shrapnel and explosives, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied the air force uses such devices. Dozens of people were wounded in the attack, according to the monitoring group, which gathers information from sources on the ground. The town has been the focus of several heavy bombardments by the military since late last year.

A second Syrian air force raid in a rebel-held part of Aleppo city killed at least 12 civilians on Saturday, the Observatory said. State news agency SANA did not report on these specific raids but, citing a military source, said the armed forces had targeted Islamic State in Aleppo province’s eastern countryside and hit “terrorist organisations” on a road running north to the border, as well as to the south of Aleppo city and within the city itself.

The military has been hit by a series of recent setbacks. Insurgents, including al Qaeda’s Syrian wing Nusra Front, celebrated inside the last government-held town in Idlib province on Friday after capturing it the night before while Islamic State has secured its grip on the ancient central city of Palmyra. In Syria’s northeast, clashes erupted between pro-government forces and Islamic State to the south and southeast of Hasaka city, the Observatory said on Friday, after the al Qaeda offshoot planted a bomb on the edge of the city.

Hasaka province is strategically important as it lies next to Islamic State-held territory in Iraq, where the group is back on the offensive after losing the city of Tikrit at the start of the month. SANA said the Syrian military had foiled an attack on Hasaka and that it had been targeting Islamic State in the countryside with the help of Kurdish YPG militia.

The YPG, which has fought the fiercest battles against Islamic State in the northeast, says it does not coordinate with the Syrian military.