Troops shell areas on edge of Syrian capital
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Troops shell areas on edge of Syrian capital

New clashes erupt in battle for control over Aleppo’s international airport and nearby military bases in country’s north

Smoke rises from buildings due to heavy shelling in Homs, Syria, Monday, March 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
Smoke rises from buildings due to heavy shelling in Homs, Syria, Monday, March 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops shelled rebel strongholds on the edge of Damascus from multiple rocket launchers based on hilltops Tuesday, while new clashes erupted in an intensifying battle for control over Aleppo’s international airport and nearby military bases in Syria’s north, activists said.

The thud of artillery and mortars reverberated across the capital from the fighting in the northeastern neighborhoods of Jobar and rebel-held areas south of Damascus. Activists said several people were wounded.

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.

In northern Syria, rebels renewed a push to capture Aleppo’s international airport and nearby air bases as part of their campaign to erode the regime’s air supremacy in the 2-year-old conflict.

The United Nations says the civil war has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced some 4 million Syrians from their homes.

A UNICEF report issued Tuesday warned that a whole generation of Syrian children risks being scarred for life because of the unrelenting violence, mass population displacement and damage to infrastructure and services.

“As millions of children inside Syria and across the region witness their past and their futures disappear amidst the rubble and destruction of this prolonged conflict, the risk of them becoming a lost generation grows every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

The report said that in areas where the fighting is most intense, few people have access to fresh water. Also, one in five schools have been destroyed, damaged, or is being used to shelter displaced families. In Aleppo, the center of months of fighting, only 6 per cent of children are attending school, the report said.

In a sign of worsening economic conditions, the value of the Syrian pound reached 101 pounds to the US dollar Tuesday. Although late last year the pound briefly sank to 105 to the dollar, prompting central bank intervention, it had been holding at about 95 pounds to the dollar.

At the start of the conflict, the dollar stood at 47 Syrian pounds.

The economy has been suffering under the weight of sanctions from the US, European Union and the Arab League that include a ban on oil exports.

Besides the economic effects, the civil war has left the nation’s industry, infrastructure and many cities, including ancient Aleppo, in ruins.

The rebels control large swathes of territory outside of Aleppo, but the battle for the city itself, Syria’s main commercial hub, is locked in a stalemate. Rebels pushed into the city in July and captured several neighborhoods. It has been a major battleground in the civil war ever since.

The army holds large parts of Aleppo and maintains control over the airport, the country’s second largest. Crucially, Syria’s air space is firmly controlled by the regime in Damascus, which uses its warplanes to bomb rebel strongholds.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes erupted on Tuesday around the airport, and rebels also intensified their assault on the Nairab and Mannagh air bases near the strategic facility, which has not been handling fights for weeks because of the fighting.

Fighting also flared up along the road that links the capital, Damascus, to the country’s biggest airport and raged for a second day in the central city of Homs as rebels tried to take back the impoverished neighborhood of Baba Amr, which they lost to Assad’s troops a year ago.

Last year, government forces besieged Baba Amr for a month before rebel forces withdrew and the government seized control. Hundreds of people were killed in the siege. On Sunday, rebels pushed back into Baba Amr, and Syrian forces responded by firing heavy machine guns into the neighborhood, sending residents fleeing.

In Geneva, the UN food agency said the renewed violence in Baba Amr has forced at least 3,000 families to leave their homes.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that a Ukrainian journalist who was kidnapped in Syria is free after being held by rebels for more than 150 days.

Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis said the reporter, Ankhar Kochneva, was expected to contact the Ukrainian Embassy in Damascus later in the day.

Kochneva, who has written for Syrian and Russian newspapers, was kidnapped in western Syria on Oct. 9. Russian media reported she was held by members of the Free Syrian Army opposition group. Perebiynis said he had no further information.

The Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted Kochneva as saying she walked away from the house where she was held, skirted a rebel guard post and then walked about 15 kilometers (9 miles) through fields until she found a villager who helped her.

The kidnappers released a video in which Kochneva said she was working as a Russian agent, but the newspaper quoted her as saying the recording was made under duress.

Russia is a staunch ally of Damascus, supplying the Assad regime with weapons and shielding his government from tougher UN sanctions.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

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