Dozens killed as regime, rebels trade salvos around Damascus

Syrian regime forces and rebel fighters traded salvos of rockets and mortar bombs Thursday in and around Damascus, killing over 70 people.

Outside observers said anti-government forces struck first, after a rebel commander vowed to hit government-held areas of the capital to avenge the past week’s strikes by government warplanes on opposition-held suburbs.

That commander, Zahran Alloush of the Islam Army rebel group, said in a tweet that his forces would keep firing mortars and rockets “until the capital is cleansed.”

The state-run SANA news agency reported that at least six people were killed in the rebels’ barrage. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at nine, and said rebels fired at least 60 mortar bombs toward the city.

Later, government batteries rained shells and rockets on to rebel-held districts outside the city, including the suburb of Douma, a power base for the Army of Islam. Government forces have targeted that area heavily over the past week, including the use of barrel-sized bombs that are dumped from helicopters.

The Observatory said at least 66 people were killed in regime strikes.

The Local Coordinating Committees, a Syria-based network of anti-regime activists, said the deadliest strikes targeted Douma, killing 25 people, while 27 others perished in the town of Kafr Batna.

An activist in Douma, Hasan Taqulden, said the town suffered at least 38 hits from mortar shells or aircraft munitions. “This is the worst we’ve seen,” he added.

AFP photographer Abd Doumany said the assault caused chaos. “The situation in the hospitals is very bad. There are shortages of everything.”

He said medics had been wounded in the shelling and residents were hiding in basements.

Local field hospitals were overwhelmed by arrivals, some of whom lay on the floor to receive treatment.

On one bed was an infant, his red and white striped sweater lifted up to allow medics to apply a defibrillator to his bloodied chest.

In the capital, meanwhile, the barrage left usually busy streets of the city deserted and prompted Damascus University to close for the day, sending students home.

Gray smoke billowed from several parts of Damascus, and the thud of shells and wailing ambulance sirens pierced the morning calm. Residents, terrified by the intensity of the barrage, kept mostly indoors.

Videos uploaded to social networks showed large columns of rising smoke, at least two wounded children and a wrecked ambulance.

“Within minutes, our busy street was empty,” a resident of Baramkeh neighborhood told AFP after the mortar fire began, adding that the head teacher of a local school had been forced to take her students to a shelter.

The middle-class district is home to several university buildings as well as the headquarters of SANA.

In the city center, traffic was light and many people stayed home.

“If the terrorists think that by shelling Damascus they will ease the pressure on them, they are making a big mistake,” a senior military official said on condition of anonymity.

“We will continue to hunt them down and destroy them.”

In Aleppo, a helicopter barrel bomb strike targeted the neighborhood of Baidin and killed 25 people, according to activists based in the city, while the Observatory put the preliminary casualty toll at 10.

Separately, the U.S. military has deployed aircraft and troops to northern Iraq to boost capabilities to rescue downed coalition pilots after a Jordanian airman was captured and killed by ISIS, a defense official said.

“We are repositioning some assets into northern Iraq,” a U.S. defense official told AFP.

The Observatory said at least 10 ISIS militants were killed in strikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

The strikes in northeastern Hassakeh province hit a building housing a weapons and explosives depot, the Observatory said.