Mortar shells hit Damascus neighborhood, killing 6

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This citizen journalism image taken on, Sunday, March. 10, 2013 and provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrians standing next to dead bodies that have been pulled from the river near Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, Syria. Activists said the dead bodies of at least 20 men were pulled from a river that runs between regime- and rebel-controlled parts of the northern city. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Mortar shells struck a predominantly Christian neighborhood and a football stadium at game time in Damascus on 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 tried in the past to establish bridgeheads in Damascus, but were pushed back to the suburbs by regime forces. Recent rebel mortar attacks on the city signal a new tactic in trying to loosen Assad's grip on his main stronghold.

In the latest attacks, four mortars hit Bab Sharqi, a predominantly Christian area known for its old churches. One shell fell in a park, two near an ice cream shop and a fourth hit a house nearby, said a government official, 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.

A mortar shell 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 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 said. They were taken to hospital and were in stable condition.

Mortar rounds struck the stadium once before, in late February, killing a player and injuring several during a practice session. Also last month, two mortar shells exploded near one of Assad's palaces, causing some damage.

There was no claim of responsibility for Monday's mortar attacks and it was not clear whether the Christian neighborhood and the football stadium were targeted or were struck by stray shells.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime activist group, reported clashes between regime forces and rebels in the Jobar neighborhood, about two miles (three kilometers) east of the stadium.

The Syrian conflict erupted two years ago, initially as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad. In response to a brutal regime crackdown, Assad's opponents took up arms, sparking a civil war. More than 70,000 have been killed and some 4 million — out of a population of 22 million — have been forced from their homes by the fighting, according to U.N. estimates.

The fighting has affected most areas of Syria.

A U.N.-appointed commission on Syria said in a new report that the country appeared condemned to an "unimaginably bleak future."

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, head of the panel investigating war crimes in Syria, said that "there are no more enclaves of stability in Syria today, and the civilian space is almost completely eroded."

He said the commission has collected evidence on 20 massacres in Syria, a reflection of the civil war's growing brutality. This includes three in the central city of Homs since December, he said.

Both sides are committing war crimes, but it appears that "government authorities have been involved more in regard to crimes against humanity," added commission member Vitit Muntarbhorn.

The commission began its work in August 2011 after being appointed by the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council.

In Brussels, EU foreign ministers reviewed Europe's blanket embargo against shipping arms to Syria.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said the EU should consider allowing munitions to be sent to outgunned Syrian rebels.

"There is a lack of balance between the Assad regime, which has weapons coming from Iran and Russia — powerful weapons — and the (rebel) National Coalition, which doesn't have the same weapons," Fabius said.

He said that "we cannot accept such an unbalanced state, which leads to the slaughter of the population."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Lakhdar Brahimi, the special U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, said only a political solution can save Syria. Without one, "the situation will be similar to or even worse than Somalia," said Brahimi, who attended the meeting in Brussels.

The West has been reluctant to send weapons for fear they may fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who have become increasingly dominant in key battlegrounds in Syria.

But with the war locked in a stalemate, Britain last month persuaded the EU to soften the embargo and allow member states to provide non-lethal aid, such as armored vehicles. The U.S. also said this month it would for the first time provide non-lethal aid to the rebels.

The military deadlock was illustrated by the renewed fighting for control of Baba Amr, a poor neighborhood of the central city of Homs.

Last year, government forces besieged Baba Amr for a month before rebel forces withdrew and the government seized control on March 1. Hundreds of people were killed in the violence, including two foreign journalists.

On Sunday, rebels pushed back into Baba Amr, and fighting raged there on Monday. Syrian forces fired heavy machine guns and launched at least one airstrike, sending residents fleeing the area, carrying satchels and children.

It was unclear how much of the neighborhood rebels had seized or continued to hold.

Also Monday, a Ukrainian journalist kidnapped by Syrian rebels five months ago, told the news agency RIA Novosti that she had escaped and was on her way to Damascus.

Anhar Kochneva was working as an interpreter for a Russian TV crew when she was kidnapped Oct. 9, according to the Ukrainian government. Her kidnappers reportedly threatened to kill her unless a ransom was paid.


Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers John Heilprin in Geneva and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.