DAMASCUS (AFP) -- Nearly 2,000 civilians, more than a quarter of them children, have been killed in a massive Syrian air offensive on rebel-held areas of Aleppo province this year, a monitor said Friday.
The staggering toll from barrel bombings and other air attacks comes just ahead of Tuesday's presidential election, which is expected to return Bashar Assad to power for a third, seven-year term.
From the beginning of January through to Thursday, air raids killed 1,963 civilians, including 567 children and 283 women, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
Control of Aleppo city, once Syria's commercial hub, has been divided since a rebel offensive in July 2012. Government aircraft have been targeting opposition-held areas there as well as nearby towns and villages.
The offensive began in mid-December, and intensified in January, with helicopters raining down barrel bombs, causing a massive exodus.
"In Aleppo, the regime's idea is to empty the city of its residents, to cause the maximum destruction possible," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Barrel bombs are cylindrical metal containers packed with explosives and scrap metal that are unguided and so kill indiscriminately.
The US has denounced them as "barbaric," and rights groups have said their use could be a war crime. 'Criminal regime'
In April, Human Rights Watch said: "President Assad is talking about elections, but for Aleppo's residents, the only campaign they are witnessing is a military one of barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling."
The election will be held only in government-controlled areas and in Syrian embassies, where voting began Thursday.
Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, is expected to win hands down against two little-known challengers.
The opposition has dismissed the vote as a "farce" and Washington calls it a "parody of democracy."
The election is seen as a tactic by Damascus to strengthen Assad's position as troops backed by Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and a growing paramilitary press offensives on several fronts.
Neighbouring Iran is a regime ally, and senior foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati said Friday the election will "strengthen the legitimacy of the Bashar government ... as his people have realized he has prevented Syria from disintegrating or falling to occupation," state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
Even though rebels seized significant swathes of territory, especially in the north and northwest, the Iranian- and Russian-backed regime still outguns them.
The vote also comes as rebels have been weakened by infighting among rival Wahhabi militant groups.
One of them, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was reported by the Observatory to have kidnapped 193 Kurds from the Aleppo area Thursday.
All civilians, aged 17 to 70, they were from the village of Qabasin.
The reason for their abduction was unknown, but Abdel Rahman said "this kind of act takes place repeatedly in areas under ISIL control."
Kurdish militias have been fighting ISIL since the radical group started pushing to seize resource-rich, majority Kurdish areas dotted in the north and northeast of Syria.
The conflict began as a peaceful, Arab Spring-inspired movement demanding political change that descended into civil war after Assad unleashed a brutal crackdown.
At least 162,000 people have died as a direct result of the fighting and bombings, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground for its reports.
The European Commission says an additional "200,000 Syrians have died from chronic illnesses due to lack of access to treatment and medicines."
It also says 3.5 million are in areas that cannot be reached by aid workers.
"Denying such access is a crime," European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva said this week.
Earlier this month, Western backers of the opposition had tried to pass a UN Security Council resolution that would have referred Syria to the International Criminal Court, but the draft was vetoed by Assad backers Russia and China.
On Friday, a group of UN rights experts said "the failure to hold those responsible for the violations to account may fuel further atrocities."