Panic, exodus as Syrian artillery pounds Damascus suburb

Syrian forces  fired artillery and rocket barrages at the northern Damascus suburb of al-Tel today in an attempt to seize the town from rebels, causing mass panic and forcing hundreds of families to flee the area, residents and opposition activists said.

The 216th mechanised battalion headquartered near Tel started bombarding the town of about 100,000 people at 3.15am at the rate of one projectile every minute, and initial reports indicated that residential apartment blocks were being hit, they said.

Opposition sources said that rebels destroyed an army roadblock that had cut off the Tel-Damascus road, and that most people were fleeing north into the nearby Qalamoun Mountains.

“Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were awaken by the sound of explosions and are running away,” Rafe Alam, one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel.

“Electricity and telephones have been cut off. Tel had been considered a safe haven and thousands of families from Homs and Damascus suburbs like Douma took refuge over the past few months in Tel,” said Alam, who is using a pseudonym because he fears for his safety.

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Tel, located eight kilometres north of Damascus, is a conservative Sunni Muslim town that relies on remittances from expatriates in Saudi Arabia, who work there mostly as skilled labourers in the construction sector.

The town fell into rebel hands last week along with several districts in the capital and on its outskirts after a bomb killed four of President Bashar al-Assad’s top lieutenants.

Syrian army shelling ‘kills six children’

A Syrian army bombardment killed at least six children and four other civilians yesterday in the town of Herak on the southern Hauran Plain, opposition activists said, and a video showed mangled bodies laid out in a local hospital.

“Artillery and mortar rounds hit several residential streets in Herak. Most of the children who were killed were living on the same street,” Shams al-Horani, one of the activists, told Reuters by phone from the city of Deraa, birthplace of the 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

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“The army is shelling Herak, al-Nuiameh, Dael, Khirbat Ghazaleh and Old Deraa from the Malaab al-Baladi (football stadium) in Deraa,” she added.

Opposition sources said Assad’s forces had largely lost control of Deraa and the main population centres in Hauran, which stretches from the outskirts of the capital Damascus to the border with Jordan.

But the army has been heavily shelling the areas under rebel control for the last week and dozens of people, mostly civilians, have been killed, the sources said.

Video footage posted on the Internet showed the bodies of several children in Herak with holes in their legs, torso and head, and a dead woman on the floor of a hospital.

One young girl wearing a pink and blue top with stars and hearts on it lay on a doctor’s table. Her legs were only attached to the rest of her body by skin.

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Next to her lay another girl with a hole in her chest and two boys with gashes in their legs and head.

One of the boys had a Popeye T-shirt on. All four were so small that they fit on a single doctor’s table.

On the floor, in a pool of blood, lay a boy in a yellow T-shirt. Next to him a woman wearing a black veil lay dead. Her eyes had rolled up and a white bandage kept her jaw from dropping. At the woman’s side lay the youngest, a baby girl with thin hair in a purple dress.

“We rely on God!” a man in the video shouted, blaming the killings on government artillery.

“Children of Herak die in shelling daily,” he added, saying the town had been bombarded for 10 days.

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