Activists: Shelling kills 11 near Syrian capital

Mideast Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops shelled a suburb of Damascus Tuesday, killing at least 11 people including women and children, as government forces forged ahead with offensives against rebel-held areas around the country, activists said.

With government push against the besieged, rebel-held central city of Homs in its third day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to avoid harming civilians.

Near Damascus, more than 60 mortar shells struck the area of Kfar Batna for over four hours, said activist Mohammed Saeed, who spoke via Skype from the nearby suburb of Douma. The explosions killed at least 11 people.

“O Lord, your mercy, O Lord,” a man wept as he carried a corpse in a child-sized shroud into a hospital, according to an amateur video posted of the event. The sobbing man, his arm bandaged and his shirt smeared with blood, placed the bundle next to other shrouded bodies.

The shelling of Kfar Batna appeared to be part of a concerted push against contested and rebel-held areas around Damascus, as President Bashar Assad’s regime tries to shore up its seat of power. In recent months, government troops have captured several towns near the capital.

The state news agency said Syrian troops restored “security and stability” to much of Jobar, a key district near Kfar Batna on the edge of Damascus, after weeks of fighting.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead in Tuesday’s shelling in Kfar Batna included two women and a child.

A video of the aftermath showed a dead baby boy, his mouth open and his face covered in blood. Another showed seven shrouded bodies lined up in a room, two of them of children. Names of the dead were scrawled on the white covers.

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 6,000 children are among the some 93,000 people killed in Syria’s civil war, which started more than two years ago with largely peaceful protests against Assad.

Activists say more than 100,000 people have been killed. The uprising escalated into an armed rebellion in response to a brutal government crackdown on protests.

In central Syria, government forces continued their three-day campaign to try to retake rebel-held parts of Homs, concentrating on the neighborhoods of Bab Houd and Khaldiyeh.

The state news agency said that troops advanced in Bab Houd, capturing several buildings and killing and wounding many “terrorists,” the government’s term for rebels. The director of the British-based Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said government forces were also shelling the Khaldiyeh section near the city’s ancient quarter and that gun battles were taking place.

Abdul-Rahman, who relies on reports from activists on the ground, said the fighters of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah were participating in the Khaldiyeh clashes. The Lebanese militants have fought alongside Syrian government forces in other battles. Hezbollah spokespeople were not immediately available for comment.

Videos uploaded by both rebels and pro-regime activists showed projectiles smashing into buildings in neighborhoods of Homs, causing thunderous explosions and sending plumes of dust and rubble into the air.

Rebels have been holed up in Homs for over a year now, and the fight to retake the city may prove a tough challenge for the regime, said Abdul-Rahman.

“They (the rebels) have mined the area. They are ready for this,” he said.

Some 2,500 civilians remain in Homs, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban.

He called on both sides to allow them to leave “without fear of persecution” as government forces try to storm the city. In a statement issued by Ban’s office Tuesday, he called “on the warring sides to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties and to allow humanitarian access.”

The Observatory said that in the northern province of Aleppo, rebels destroyed an army vehicle using a Russian-made Konkurs anti-tank missile that they recently received from Gulf Arab states.

Observatory director Abdul-Rahman said the rebels appear to have received large numbers of the missiles in the past few days.

That echoed claims by activists that Syria’s rebels have received shipments of more powerful weapons from Gulf allies in recent weeks, particularly anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, that have helped stall advances by regime forces.

Also Tuesday, the al-Qaida branch called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that it said targeted a center run by pro-government militiamen in the central town of Sabboura.

The militants said Monday’s assault was carried out by two fighters. One opened fire at the guards while the other drove into the center and blew himself up.

The state news agency said the attack targeted a cultural center, and three people were killed.

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Associated Press writhers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Diaa Hadid contributed.

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