BEIRUT (AP) — A barrage of rockets slammed into a contested district on the northeastern edge of Damascus, killing at least five people and trapping others under the rubble, while rebel fighters overran an army checkpoint near the southern border with Jordan, activists said Friday.
The rocket attack on the capital's Barzeh neighborhood, where rebels aiming to topple President Bashar Assad are known to operate, follows days of heavy fighting between the rebels and the military in the area.
Rebels have established footholds in districts on the edge of Damascus and in suburbs in the northeast and south, and from there they lob mortars into the heavily defended city. Despite their efforts, they have been unable to break the Assad regime's tight hold on the capital.
The activists said several rockets exploded in a residential area in Barzeh on Thursday night and Friday morning. The opposition Barzeh Media Center and a militant website claimed the Syrian military fired 14 rockets, killing three children, a woman and an elderly man. It said more people were still buried under the rubble.
"The impact of the rockets was huge," said a Barzeh-based activist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. "Several houses collapsed and others were set on fire."
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed what appeared to be destroyed and burning houses. Others showed men with a flashlight working to pull out a survivor from the rubble. The videos appeared consistent with AP reporting.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed a barrage of shells hit Barzeh and said at least one person was killed and several others wounded. It said the nature of the attack and exact number of casualties was not clear.
Barzeh is close to Esh el-Wirwar, a suburb of Damascus predominantly inhabited by Alawites and Syrian army volunteers. Rebels frequently target the area with mortar shells.
The Syrian revolt started with largely peaceful protests in March 2011 but has developed into a civil war with increasingly sectarian overtones. Sunni Muslims dominate rebel ranks, while the Assad regime is composed mostly of Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group to which the president and his family belong. More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict, according to the U.N.
The rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks in the southern province of Daraa near the strategic border area with Jordan, capturing military bases and taking the town of Dael.
On Friday, rebels overran an army checkpoint near the border with Jordan after fighting with troops, the Observatory said.
The rebel gains have coincided with what Western and Arab officials say are U.S.-backed training of opposition fighters in Jordan and an influx of foreign-funded weapons into the south. The opposition advances could be leading up to control of the region along the Jordanian border. That would be a major victory that could offer rebels a staging ground to try to attack the capital Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.
Rebels already control large swathes of territory in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
A Jordanian security official said Thursday the kingdom has tightened security along its 370-kilometer (230-mile) border with Syria, doubling the number of soldiers in the last two days. He declined to disclose the size of the force.
The stepped up security reflects the kingdom's fears that the chaos from Syria's 2-year-old civil war could lead to a failed state on its doorstep where Islamic militants have a free hand.
President Bashar Assad's regime warned Thursday the kingdom is "playing with fire" by allowing the U.S and other countries to train and arm Syrian rebels on its territory.
The warnings followed statements from U.S. and other Western and Arab officials that Jordan has been facilitating arms shipments and hosting training camps for Syrian rebels since last October.
The relentless bloodshed in Syria has forced millions of people to flee their homes, and many of them have sought refuge abroad.
In Geneva, the United Nations predicted Friday that the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan will more than double to 1.2 million by the end of this year.
UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said Friday that the U.N. agency for children urgently needs new funding to continue coping with the influx, saying that "the needs are rising exponentially, and we are broke."
The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan — a country of 6 million people — is approaching half a million.
In Turkey, the first radio station backed by Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition went on air for the first time on Thursday. The station's manager, Jaleel Taha, said Al Kul is the first free and independent community radio station to be broadcast throughout most of Syria since the crisis began.
Taha told the Associated Press on Friday that the station reaches all of northern and central Syria as well as the capital Damascus.
"What makes us different from other radio stations is the message that we carry. Which is, we are for all Syrians, we criticize everybody, even from inside the opposition," said Taha, a pseudonym used to protect members of his family some of whom are still in Syria, from reprisals. "Our only three red lines are sectarianism, violence and hatred."
The operation has since grown and now employs 34 people — 27 inside Syria, and seven in Istanbul. Taha said the station is funded by private donations and non-profit organizations. He said electricity bills and rent will be paid by the Coalition, with which Al Kul shares office space.
Al Kul — which roughly translates into "everybody" or "the people" — has 14 programs in its repertoire - including one for children called "They Are Too Young to Suffer".
The Syrian government has jammed signals from within the country, Taha said, adding that they'll continue broadcasting from Turkey — for now.