Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT: Syrian warplanes bombed an olive oil factory packed with farmers Tuesday, killing at least 20 people in the latest regime strike to rip through a crowd of civilians, activists said.

The bombing comes as the civil war takes a devastating toll on an already beleaguered population.

Human Rights Watch said it found “compelling evidence” that the regime used cluster bombs in an airstrike that killed at least 11 children earlier this week.

It was not immediately clear whether the olive press was the intended target, or if the plane misfired. The government generally does not comment on rebel claims and there was no official reaction to the latest allegations.

But two anti-regime activist groups — the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees — said the factory was hit Tuesday near the northern city of Idlib.

The Observatory said “ten were killed or wounded,” while the LCC said at least 20 people were killed. Syria restricts independent media coverage, making it difficult to determine the exact toll.

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

President Bashar Assad’s regime has been relying on air power in recent months, mostly in the northern province of Idlib, the nearby province of Aleppo, Deir el-Zour to the east and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the air force is being used in areas that the overstretched army cannot easily reach.

“This is mass punishment,” Khashan said. “The regime is desperate and wants to make the price of its opponents’ victory costly.”

Olive oil is a main staple in Syria. Tens of thousands of tons are produced annually.