AMMAN/DAMASCUS: Syrian troops backed by tanks and artillery moved into a rebel-held district of Damascus on Monday, stepping up efforts to drive opposition fighters from the capital and build on battlefield gains elsewhere in the country, a rebel commander said.
Opposition sources said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad advanced into the neighbourhood of Qaboun after subjecting the Sunni Muslim district to heavy shelling. Two adjacent rebel-held neighbourhoods have been under sustained fire in recent weeks to cut off the movement of rebel fighters.
Diplomats and security sources said Assad appeared intent on securing the capital from rebels that pose a threat to his troops, who are dug into positions in the centre of the city.
Backed by guerrillas from Hezbollah, Assad has recaptured important regions in central Syria in the past two months, linking Damascus to his Alawite heartland on the coast. His troops now appear focused on eliminating the rebel threat to the capital.
Assad's gains, after more than two years of a war that has killed more than 90,000 people, come amid growing signs of rebel infighting that has pitted Islamist fighters against the Western- and Arab-backed Free Syrian Army.
In Qaboun, Republican Guards troops detained hundreds of people in public places to prevent rebel fighters from hitting government troops as they breached rebel defences and entered the district, activists said.
There was no immediate comment on the fighting from the Syrian government and Reuters was not able to verify opposition accounts.
Qaboun contains an industrial area through which rebels had been linking up with opposition units in the north-eastern suburb of Harasta.
Republican Guards units overran the industrial area and besieged Qaboun with T-72 tanks while units on high ground in the centre of the capital hit Qaboun with rockets and artillery, according to a rebel commander there.
"They made inroads into Qaboun. We are still on the high buildings but they took lots of civilians to prevent us from hitting them," said Mohammad Abu al-Hoda of the Free Syrian Army.
He said the hostages were being held in a mosque and two schools.
The Qaboun Coordination Committee, an activist group, said at least 60 people had been killed in Qaboun over the last few days by the shelling and subsequent clashes.
A working class district, Qaboun was one of the first areas of Damascus to demonstrate against four decades of rule by Assad and his late father before becoming a centre of armed resistance after security forces killed dozens of Sunni Muslim protesters.
The conflict has taken on a sectarian dimension seen elsewhere in Syria, with Sunni Qaboun pitted against an adjacent neighbourhood inhabited by members Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated the state since the 1960s.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said in a statement that 200 people were trapped in a mosque in Qaboun and 40,000 civilians in Qaboun and nearby Barzeh have been under siege for the last seven months and face the threat of being wiped out by indiscriminate shelling.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said that the detained residents were able to flee the mosque on Saturday. But it said locals were struggling to cope with shortages of food and medicine and the presence of snipers.
Elsewhere in the country Monday, six children were among 29 people killed in a devastating army bombardment of five villages in the northwest as residents prepared to break the daytime fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, the Observatory reported.
The UN's special envoy on children in war was in Syria for talks Monday, as concern mounts over the rising child death toll in the bloody two-year conflict.
Leila Zerrougui, the UN secretary general's special representative on children and armed conflict, will spend three days in Syria, the UN said.
She is to meet with government officials, UN representatives and non-governmental organisations, as part of a tour that will also take her to neighbouring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, the main host countries for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict.
According to the Observatory, more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, more than 5,000 of them children under the age of 16.
The deadliest of Sunday's air and artillery bombardments of villages in the northwestern province of Idlib struck Maghara, where 13 people were killed, the Observatory said.
Another six people were killed in the village of Al-Bara, four in Basamis, three in Kfar Nabl in an air strike, and three in Iblin, according to the Britain-based group, which relies on a network of activists, lawyers and doctors on the ground across Syria.
The dead included at least eight women as well as the six children, it added.
Video footage posted online by activists showed harrowing scenes of death and destruction in Maghara, with survivors screaming as the camera panned over the rubble.
"God is great. Where are our Muslim brothers? Where are our Arab brothers?" the activist says as he films residents trying to dig out people trapped beneath the wreckage of their homes.
"This is the iftar of the Muslims in Jabal Zawiya," he said, referring to the hill district where the village lies.
"A massacre in the village of Maghara," he adds, as residents fill buckets and bowls with water to put out fires.
A second video showed smoke billowing over the village and residents lifting a dust-covered older man, his stomach torn open, onto a flat-bed truck.
Another man lay dead on the ground, his body and clothes covered in grey dust flecked with blood, his mouth open, his arm curled upwards and his hand lying on his chest.