BEIRUT: Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad pounded southern suburbs of the Syrian capital to flush out rebels on Sunday, residents said, as the government restarted the school year to give a semblance of normality to the war-torn country.
Since a pro-democracy movement started in March 2011, Assad's administration has played it down to give an impression of order, even after the killing of thousands of peaceful protesters turned the uprising into an armed revolt.
Even now that there is heavy fighting in every province, Assad appears determined to continue ruling as in peacetime.
The state news agency said more than 5 million students would return to the country's 22,000 schools, excluding an unspecified number damaged by war or housing refugees.
It was impossible to verify how many actually went back as the government restricts access to the country for journalists.
"Some of the schools have opened, but really children are too afraid to go," said Abo Adnan, an activist from the central city of Hama which has seen heavy fighting for months.
"You know we have army checkpoints every few metres and there are snipers everywhere. Only two or three schools opened in Hama today," he said.
Many say that, in the heat of war, families are too scared to send their children back and some teachers will remain home. In rebel-held parts of Syria, fighters have taken over the two-storey school buildings to use as bases and some classrooms are used for prisoners.
Assad's forces have dropped bombs over these schools and many stand in ruin.
The United Nations has said the ministry of education reported that nearly 10 percent of schools across the country had been damaged or destroyed and 800 sheltered families uprooted by fighting, although the U.N. said the government had started moving some out to make way for pupils.
A resident of Damascus said the sound of bombardment overnight from the south of the capital was the heaviest she could remember, and continued into Sunday. Black smoke could be seen rising from an area around the southern neighbourhood of Hajar al-Aswad.
Troops had surrounded Hajar al-Aswad and the district of Qadam next to it, she said. "We've heard the army has deployed inside the districts but we don't know," she said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based violence watchdog, said that 70 people, mostly civilians, were killed on Sunday. It says 27,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old uprising against Assad.
A resident in Hajar al-Aswad said that the artillery offensive was a revenge attack after three Syrian soldiers who were killed by rebels in the neighbourhood a day before.
On Saturday, 20 bodies, including a woman's, were found by residents in the neighbouring district of Tadamon that had been overrun by Assad's troops, activists said.
An activist in Tadamon said on Sunday that after weeks of shelling no schools opened in his district today. "People here forgot about the life that you live. They are just waiting for God's help to kick Assad out," the activist said over Skype.
International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is in Damascus for talks with Assad and government officials but the veteran Algerian diplomat says the mission is "nearly impossible".