‘Complete madness’: Reported rebel shelling leaves more than a dozen dead in government-held Damascus city

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A car reportedly struck by a mortar in central Damascus on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

AMMAN: Mortar shells reportedly launched by rebels in East Ghouta killed more than a dozen civilians in government-held Damascus over the past 48 hours, in what humanitarian officials called some of the most intense shelling on the Syrian capital in months.

“There has been quite a dramatic increase in mortar strikes on civilian areas” of government-held Damascus, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) spokeswoman Linda Tom told Syria Direct from the Syrian capital on Wednesday.

The UN estimates that more than 50 mortar shells struck Damascus city on Wednesday, added the spokeswoman.

At least one civilian was killed and another six injured in mortar strikes on eastern neighborhoods of Damascus on Wednesday, reported local news outlet Mortar Diaries, which tracks rebel shelling on the Syrian capital. Bab Touma, the Old City and much of the capital’s central and eastern neighborhoods were all reportedly hit on Wednesday.

“Every 20 minutes or so we hear the sound of a mortar landing,” Lama, a university student in central Damascus told Syria Direct on Wednesday morning.

Medical staff tend to a woman injured by shelling in Damascus city on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

An estimated 114 shells struck government-held Damascus on Tuesday, killing 13 civilians and injuring another 77, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Opposition forces just outside of Damascus have sporadically shelled the capital for years. However, the latest reported increase in mortars coincides with a massive government bombing campaign against the Syrian capital’s rebel-held, besieged eastern suburbs.

Government shelling and airstrikes in East Ghouta killed hundreds of civilians and injured thousands of others since late December.

Spokesmen for Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman, two major opposition factions in East Ghouta, denied that rebels were responsible for shelling civilians in government-held Damascus in conversations with Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“We do not target civilians in Damascus,” said Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamzah Beriqdar on Wednesday. Both Beriqdar and Failaq a-Rahman spokesman Wael Alwan accused “pro-Assad militias” of shelling the government-held city.

As mortars fell on government-held Damascus on Wednesday, several private schools and universities closed while many civilians stayed indoors, a half dozen residents told Syria Direct.

“Today, the streets are empty,” said Murad, a 23-year-old university student in the Duweida neighborhood in eastern Damascus. “No one sent their kids to school, and my family didn’t let me go to university, either.”

Ingy Sedky, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who has been posted in Damascus for two years, said she has “never witnessed such an intensity in shelling within the city.”

“But whatever is happening inside Damascus, let us not forget the people who are trapped inside East Ghouta,” Sedky told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Wednesday. The rebel enclave’s 400,000 residents “have no place to go, hiding underground in fear for their lives.”

The ICRC, which provides humanitarian aid to residents across Syria affected by the conflict, has not received permission from the government to send aid into the besieged East Ghouta suburbs since mid-November, the organization said in a statement published on Wednesday.

“What is happening in Damascus and Eastern Ghouta is complete madness,” said Sedky. “This has to stop.”

With additional reporting by Walid Nofal and Lena al-Abed.