By: PHILIP ISSA , Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Rockets fired on a market in a government-controlled neighborhood of Damascus on Tuesday killed 35 people and wounded more than 20 others, Syrian state-run media said, marking one of the highest death tolls in a single attack targeting the capital.
The government blamed rebels in the eastern suburbs of Damascus for the attack on the Kashkol neighborhood. The capital, seat of President Bashar Assad's power, has come under increasing attack as government forces continue to pound rebel-held eastern Ghouta, with military backing from Russia.
With government forces tied up in the monthlong offensive on eastern Ghouta, Islamic State militants seized a neighborhood on its southern edge, forcing the government to rush in reinforcements.
IS militants captured the neighborhood of Qadam late Monday, a week after rebels had surrendered it to the government. At least 36 soldiers and pro-government militiamen were killed in the clashes, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said dozens more were captured or wounded.
Last year, the Islamic State group lost the swath of territory it had controlled in eastern Syria since 2014 — and where it had proclaimed its self-styled "caliphate" — but it retains pockets of control in areas across Syria, including two neighborhoods on the southern edge of Damascus.
On Monday, the militants pounced on Qadam from the neighboring Hajr al-Aswad and Yarmouk neighborhoods, which they control. More than 1,000 rebels and their families had earlier fled Qadam for rebel-held territory in the north of the country, instead of submitting to the Damascus authorities.
There was no comment from the Syrian government following the IS seizure of Qadam.
The government's assault on eastern Ghouta has displaced 45,000 people, the United Nations said Tuesday, while tens of thousands more are living in desperate conditions in northern Syria, where a Turkish military campaign is underway.
In eastern Ghouta, rescue workers were still retrieving bodies from the basement of a school that was bombed Monday by government or Russian jets, a spokesman for the Syrian Civil Defense group said.
The bodies of 20 women and children were retrieved from the rubble, said the group, also known as the White Helmets. The school in the town of Arbin was being used as a shelter by residents.
Oways al-Shami, the Civil Defense spokesman, said continued bombing was slowing down rescue operations.
"They're not able to use their heavy vehicles because the planes are targeting the Civil Defense directly," al-Shami said of the rescuers.
Residents in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta, also reported indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes.
"I haven't been able to go out to look for food since yesterday," said Ahmad Khansour, a media activist who spoke to The Associated Press from a basement in the town. He reported 175 strikes since Monday evening.
At least 36 people were killed under the hail of strikes on Tuesday, according to the Observatory.
Government forces abruptly intensified their fire on Douma on Sunday after a six-day reprieve allowing a limited number of medical evacuations. In the meantime, they made sweeping advances against other areas of eastern Ghouta, leaving just a fraction of the enclave still outside the government's control.
"There's nowhere left to attack" but Douma, Khansour said.
A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, Andrej Mahecic, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that although tens of thousands have fled the fighting in eastern Ghouta, thousands more were "still trapped and in dire need of aid," adding that a shortage of shelters was "a major concern."
Meanwhile, the U.N. children's agency said some 100,000 people were trapped in rural areas of the northern Syrian district of Afrin and in need of humanitarian aid after Turkish and allied Syrian forces drove out a Syrian Kurdish militia there.
UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said the agency hadn't been able to deliver health and nutrition supplies to the district in 20 days, and water trucks had stopped deliveries since Thursday. The agency estimates 50,000 children are among those who need humanitarian aid in Afrin.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said it was able to deliver 25 tons of humanitarian aid items, like blankets, diapers, lamps, and water tanks, to displaced Afrin families.
Reports of looting in the largely deserted town spread on Tuesday, as more photos emerged showing allied Syrian rebel fighters attached to Turkey's military campaign breaking into shops, stealing goods and cattle, and hauling off tractors and motorcycles amid scenes of celebration.
It is proving an embarrassment to Turkey, which is battling perceptions that the Syrian opposition forces it has aligned with are corrupt, unprofessional and jihadist.
A top U.N. representative in Syria, Sajjad Malik, raised the alarm on Twitter, reporting "looting, destruction of properties & exodus of civilians" from Afrin.
Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said his country was "sensitive" to reports of looting and promised Turkey "will not allow it."
A Syrian opposition body published the phone numbers of military police commanders in the area, urging anyone who witnesses looting to file complaints with them.
Also Tuesday, at least nine people were killed in airstrikes targeting a camp for displaced people in rebel-held Idlib province in the northwest of the country, according to the Observatory and the Civil Defense. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.