DAMASCUS: Two mortar bombs exploded near one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s palaces in Damascus Tuesday but caused only material damage, Syria’s state news agency said.
The attack was the first confirmed strike close to a presidential palace and another sign that the civil war is seeping into areas once considered safe and reaching closer to the heart of Assad’s seat of power in the capital.
The news service, SANA, said “terrorists” fired the rounds that struck near the southern wall of the Tishreen palace in the capital’s northwestern Muhajireen district. The government refers to anti-government fighters as “terrorists.”
No casualties were reported and it was unclear whether Assad was in the palace. He has two others in the city.
Assad often uses Tishreen palace to receive dignitaries and as a guest house for foreign officials during their visits to Syria.
For security reasons, Assad movements are shrouded in secrecy and it is unclear how much time he spends in any of the palaces.
Central Damascus has largely been spared the violence that has left other Syrian cities in ruins. For weeks, however, rebels who have established footholds in the suburbs have been pushing closer to the heart of the capital from the eastern and southern outskirts, clashing with government forces.
Rebels have claimed to fire rockets at the presidential palaces before, but Tuesday’s strike was the first confirmed by the government.
In the northern city of Aleppo, a missile strike leveled a stretch of buildings and killed at least 33 people, including 14 children, leaving residents combing through the rubble to find those trapped beneath it, anti-regime activists said Tuesday.
Rebels have slowly expanded their control over parts of Aleppo since first storming it last summer. The city is now divided between rebel- and regime-controlled zones.
Videos posted online showed scores of men searching the destroyed buildings in the poor Jabal Badro neighborhood for the dead and wounded. One man swung a sledgehammer to break through concrete while a bulldozer hauled off rubble. In another video, a man covered in gray dust struggled under pile of concrete.
The videos appeared authentic and corresponded with other Associated Press reporting.
Activist Mohammad al-Khatib of the Aleppo Media Center said via Skype that the death toll could rise further as residents search the site for more bodies.
He said the strike appeared to be from a large ground-to-ground missile because of the scale of the destruction and because residents did not report hearing a fighter jet, as they usually do during airstrikes.
Although Assad’s forces regularly shell and launch airstrikes on areas held by anti-government rebels, their use of large missiles has been limited.
Rebels also clashed with government forces near Aleppo’s international airport and the Kweiras military airport nearby, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Clashes have halted air traffic to the two airports for weeks, since rebels launched their offensive to try to capture them.
The Observatory also reported government shelling and airstrikes and clashes between government forces and rebels east and south of the capital, Damascus. Seven people were killed in rocket strikes on the eastern suburb of Kafar Batna and five died in a car bombing in Jdeidat al-Fadel, southwest off the capital, it said.
SANA said the army had carried out “successful operations against terrorists” in Aleppo, mentioning a number of neighborhoods that did not include Jabal Badro.
In the northern city of Ras al-Ain, opposition fighters and Kurdish militias announced that they have ceased hostilities after sealing an accord that will see them fight together against the regime.
Intermittent and sometimes deadly clashes have taken place between the two sides since rebels entered the majority Kurdish city, located on the border with Turkey, several months ago.
A statement was issued at the weekend detailing the terms of the final accord between the rebels and the Kurdish popular committees.
A Kurdish activist from Ras al-Ain confirmed to AFP over the Internet that “there have been no confrontations following the agreement.”
“Hostilities ended between the two parties a week ago and yesterday things were calm. The number of battalions in the city has decreased a lot and those that remain are stationed at the entrances,” he said, giving his name only as Hevidar.
Sunday’s agreement, which was brokered by prominent Christian dissident Michel Kilo and other opposition activists, calls for the “complete withdrawal of military forces and displays of arms from the city,” said the statement.
Ras al-Ain would be governed by a civilian council, which would also manage the border crossing with Turkey in accordance with both parties, the statement added.