DAMASCUS: Syrian jets bombed rebel forces attempting to recapture a keenly contested district of Homs Monday, as mortar bombs slammed into a Damascus neighborhood killing at least three people.
Rebels launched a surprise assault on Homs’ Bab Amr at dawn Sunday, hoping to take back the devastated neighborhood which they lost to Assad’s forces last year.
The regime responded with airstrikes and shelling, and sent reinforcements to the city which was “completely sealed,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Fighting raged through the night, with more airstrikes Monday morning.
“The army will at all costs hunt down the rebels even if it destroys the neighborhood,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
“The regime cannot allow them to stay ... because the neighborhood of Bab Amr is known as an [anti-regime] symbol in the international media.”
Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said “the army thwarted an attempt to infiltrate Bab Amr ... inflicting an enormous loss of human life and weapons on the armed groups,” which it said included the jihadist Nusra Front.
Regime troops seized Bab Amr from rebels just over a year ago after a bloody monthlong siege that left the district in ruins and killed hundreds, including two foreign journalists.
Mortar bombs struck a Christian neighborhood and a football stadium at game time in Damascus Monday, killing six civilians and wounding at least 24 in what appeared to be an escalating campaign by rebels to sow fear in the Syrian capital. Opposition fighters trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad have stepped up mortar attacks on Damascus in recent weeks, striking deeper than ever into the heart of the city.
Rebel fighters have tried in the past to establish bridgeheads in the capital, but were pushed back to the Damascus suburbs by regime forces. Recent rebel mortar fire on civilian targets signals a new tactic in trying to loosen Assad’s grip on his main stronghold.
In the latest attacks, four mortars bombs hit Bab Sharqi, a predominantly Christian area known for its old churches. One fell in a park, two near an ice cream shop and a fourth hit a house nearby, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Six people were killed and 24 wounded, officials said. It was one of the highest death tolls in recent mortar attacks on the capital.
There was no fighting in the area at the time.
A mortar bomb also hit the Tishrin football stadium in another neighborhood, the central Barakmeh district, wounding several people during a game, according to the state-run news agency SANA.
Gen. Mowaffak Joumaa, head of the Syrian General Sports Federation, said the mortar bomb landed just off the pitch during the second half of a game, causing light damage. Four players on the bench and a journalist were hurt, he added. They were taken to hospital and were in stable condition.
On the diplomatic front, a top official of Syria’s tolerated opposition met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to appeal for key Damascus ally Moscow to relent in its refusal to back calls on President Bashar Assad to step down.
Haytham Manna of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change – an anti-Assad group tolerated by the regime as it opposes the armed uprising – said the road to peace runs through Moscow. “We have always said that a peaceful political solution goes through Moscow,” Manna added.
Russia has vetoed three U.N. resolutions that would have punished the Assad regime for the violence and has said it views pressure on him to step down as undue foreign interference.
In Brussels, EU foreign ministers emerged from talks with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on the conflict which is about to enter its third year, divided over whether to arm the rebels or push for a political solution.
Brahimi, speaking after talks with the EU’s 27 foreign ministers, insisted that “the military solution is out of the question.” The ministers were sharply divided, with Britain, France and Italy tipping in favor of eventual military aid for the opposition, and Germany and others seeing that as too risky.
Israel’s chief of staff Benny Gantz warned Monday that “terrorist” groups fighting Assad’s regime alongside other insurgents were “becoming stronger” and voiced concern that they could turn on Israel in the future.
“The situation in Syria has become exceptionally dangerous. The terrorist organizations are becoming stronger on the ground. Now they are fighting against Assad but in the future they could turn against us,” Gantz said.
In recent months, there have been several instances of gunfire or mortar fire hitting the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.
U.N. peacekeepers held by rebels for three days in southern Syria and freed over the weekend crossed into Israel from neighboring Jordan Monday, a military spokeswoman said.
At least 90 people were killed Monday in violence across the country, the Observatory said.