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In Syria, heavy civilian toll reported in fighting near capital

The Syrian government and the opposition each accuse the other of attacks that reportedly left 20 civilians dead. An aid group warns of a worsening disaster.

January 14, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times
  • In an image from video provided by the opposition Shaam News Network, Syrian men are seen rushing to the aid of people injured in Moadamiyeh, a suburb of Damascus, the capital.
In an image from video provided by the opposition Shaam News Network, Syrian… (Shaam News Network )

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces pressed an ongoing offensive Monday aimed at dislodging rebels from the vicinity of the capital, Damascus, amid reports of large numbers of civilian casualties, including women and children.

Meantime, a new study by an international aid group labeled the almost 2-year-old Syrian conflict "a regional humanitarian disaster" that is worsening, with more than 2.5 million people forced from their homes in the face of bombings, targeted attacks, sexual violence, food shortages and a general collapse in services.

"Inside Syria, the human and physical destruction is immense, the country's civic and social fabric is in shreds, and its economic foundation and infrastructure are devastated," said the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

The report is the latest in a series to document the dire panorama in what for decades had been one of the Middle East's most stable, albeit politically repressive, nations. Human rights investigators say both sides have committed abuses.

International diplomats have failed in efforts to impose a cease-fire on a crisis that erupted in March 2011 when crowds took to the streets of the southern city of Dara in protest against the government of President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled in autocratic fashion for more than 40 years. Street demonstrations eventually morphed into an all-out rebellion, with weapons and funds flowing to anti-Assad rebels from sympathizers outside the country.

For weeks, the military has been trying to drive armed opponents away from the capital, where Assad's forces still retain control and have imposed heavy security restrictions.

On Monday, the government and opposition provided greatly divergent accounts of the latest clashes and attacks in outlying districts of Damascus.

Opposition activists said as many as 20 civilians, including many women and children, were killed in a government airstrike on the suburb of Moadamiyeh. Opposition video posted on the Internet showed buildings with their facades sheared off and people pulling bloodied and dust-caked bodies from mounds of debris.

The government news service said "terrorists" — the government's term for the armed opposition — had shelled Moadamiyeh, "hitting a civilian building in the city" and causing casualties, among them women and children.

There was no way to verify either version of events in Moadamiyeh. Each side has regularly provided inaccurate information about events in Syria, where access by journalists and independent monitors is extremely limited.

In recent days, opposition activists say, government aircraft and artillery have been pounding Moadamiyeh and the adjacent city of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, both considered pro-rebel enclaves. The two sprawling townships are also close to a strategic military airport that has been repeatedly targeted by rebels.

The Syrian government has increasingly relied on its air power to put down the raging rebellion, which has spread throughout much of the nation. Rebels in effect have seized broad swaths of Syrian territory, but the government's superior firepower has thwarted various insurgent efforts to advance into the capital and other strategic areas.

According to a United Nations report, at least 60,000 people have died in the 22-month-old conflict.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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