Mortar Shells in Damascus Kill 3, Wound 50

BEIRUT (AP) -

Mortar shells struck a residential area in central Syria Wednesday, killing three people and wounding more than 50, including a number of women and children, state-run news agency said.

The latest mortar attacks came as Syrian government troops fought fierce battles with rebels for control of key neighborhoods in the northeast of the capital, residents and activists said.

SANA said “terrorists” targeted the al-Boukhtyar neighborhood of Damascus with mortars and that two of the mortar shells struck near an orphanage. The Syrian government refers to rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad as terrorists.

Rebels have stepped up mortar attacks on Damascus in recent weeks, striking deeper than ever into the heart of the city in a new tactic to try and loosen Assad’s grip on his main stronghold.

The pro-government Al-Ekhbariya news channel aired footage of the attacks, showing houses and cars on fire and firefighters working to extinguish the flames. People were shown weeping and cursing the rebels.

Also, a European Union staff member was killed in a rocket attack on an opposition stronghold south of the capital, the EU said.

Opposition fighters have been trying to advance into Damascus for weeks, battering regime checkpoints and military bases in the heavily fortified capital.

Both sides see Damascus as the ultimate prize in the civil war.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday’s clashes were concentrated in the capital’s neighborhoods of Jobar and Barzeh.

A resident in the area said shelling overnight “shook apartments” and terrified the inhabitants. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.

A car bomb exploded outside a police station in Khan Sheih neighborhood, west of Damascus, the Observatory said. The Britain-based activist group also said fierce clashes broke out after the blast but had no immediate reports of casualties.

Fighting also raged in other Syrian cities, including Homs, where the military pounded rebel positions with artillery.