BEIRUT

Middle East

Mortar fire kills 2 near opera of Syrian capital

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on April 5, 2014 shows smoke billowing from buildings following reported shelling by rebel fighters in the al-Itfaia neighbourhood of the capital Damascus. AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA

DAMASCUS: Mortar shells exploded near the Damascus Opera House on Sunday, killing two, state media said, as rebels intensified their shelling of the Syrian capital to relieve pressure on an opposition neighborhood that government forces have been trying to seize.

The opera, officially called the Assad House for Culture and Arts, is located near a cluster of government and security buildings and last year hosted a defiant speech by President Bashar Assad in which he vowed to continue fighting rebels seeking his overthrow.

Rebels holed up in the city's rural periphery have focused their efforts on hitting the area, said an activist who uses the name Muaz al-Shami.

The Syrian state media outlet SANA said other mortar shells hit nearby areas on Sunday morning. On Saturday, mortar fire injured 22 people in the city. The British-based Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed both days' shelling.

Syrian rebels often fire mortar shells into Damascus from strongholds in outlying communities, but the fire has intensified this week as pro-Assad forces advance on the rural Ghuta suburb to the capital's east, al-Shami said in a Skype interview from the area.

"They (rebels) are trying to shell security strongholds in Damascus. It's an attempt to reduce pressure on the neighborhood," he said.

Pro-Assad forces began fighting hard to seize Ghuta - a long-held opposition area - over the past five days, said al-Shami. As he spoke, explosions could be heard in the background. The area has been blockaded for six months.

The assault on Ghuta is part of a push by Assad forces to solidify its hold on Damascus by dislodging rebels from the towns and neighborhoods on the city's fringes. The government has used twin tactics to achieve its aims: blockading rebellious areas to pressure them into submission and unleashing artillery and airstrikes on districts that refuse to bend.

Last week government forces seized the outskirts of the town of Mleiha, near the Ghouta area. That came after pro-Assad forces severed important rebel supply lines from the eastern Lebanese border into the Damascus periphery.

Across the border in Jordan, officials say bloody riots erupted at the largest camp for Syrian refugees leaving at least one refugee dead by gunshot and 31 people wounded.

Police used tear gas to break up crowds who attacked the Zaatari camp's police stations and set fire to tents to protest the arrest of compatriots who tried to sneak in a day earlier, they said in a statement Sunday.

Thousands of refugees evacuated the east side of the camp where the riots broke out, they said, adding that 29 policemen were injured.

Brig. Gen. Waddah Hmoud, director of Jordan's Syrian refugee camps affairs department said a 25-year-old Syrian was killed in the violence and at least two other refugees were wounded.

In the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, activists pulled out five children overnight from the rubble of a building bombed Friday, said the Observatory, which obtains its news through a network of activists on the ground.

Another activist who spoke via Skype from Aleppo, Mohammed Wissam, said crude explosives-filled barrels were dropped from helicopters onto the Misyar area of Aleppo, killing nearly two dozen people.

A video uploaded of the bombing's aftermath showed a heap of rubble that appeared at least a story high. Men with drills tried to break up concrete to find bodies. In one clip, a dead baby is pulled from the wreckage. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded with The Associated Press' reporting of events.

The British-based Observatory, which obtains its news through a network of activists on the ground, estimated 23 people were killed.

 

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