BEIRUT (AP) — Intense shelling by Syrian government troops on a village in the country's south killed at least eight women and girls overnight as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad pushed ahead with an offensive against rebels near the border with Jordan, activists said Friday.
Buoyed by an influx of fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and other foreign Shiite Muslim militants, the Syrian regime has grabbed the initiative in the nation's more than 2-year-old conflict in recent weeks, capturing a strategic town near the border with Lebanon and squeezing rebel positions around the capital, Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling overnight targeted the village of Karak, in eastern Daraa, and killed four women and four girls. The Observatory relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria for its information
A video posted on a Facebook page of activists from Daraa showed the bodies of the women and children allegedly killed in the shelling wrapped in blankets placed on the ground of a home. Another video from the village showed residents carrying others wounded into vehicles amid wails by women and children and signs of panic.
The videos appeared genuine and were consistent with other AP reporting of the events.
The United Nations has estimated that more than 6,000 children are among the some 93,000 people killed in Syria's more than 2-year-old conflict, which started with largely peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad. The uprising morphed into an armed rebellion in response to a brutal government crackdown on the protest movement.
In recent weeks, government troops have gone on the offensive against rebel-held areas to try to cut the opposition's supply lines and secure Damascus and the corridor running to the Mediterranean coast, which is the heartland of the president's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Regime forces have also made inroads in the south. Syria's state news agency said Friday government troops were chasing "terrorist cells" in the city of Daraa, the birthplace of the anti-Assad uprising, as well as the surrounding countryside, including along the border with Jordan. It did not mention Karak.
SANA said 18 opposition fighters including Jordanians, a Saudi and a Chechen, were killed and weapons were seized. It did not refer to civilian casualties.
State-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV also reported that government forces seized a truck loaded with weapons and ammunition in the central Homs province apparently destined for rebel fighters. The truck included with anti-tank missiles, machine guns, shoulder propelled grenades and communication devices, the station said.
The United States and its allies recently said they will help arm the rebels amid reports that Washington's Gulf allies have already sent some much-coveted anti-tank missiles to select groups of fighters. The U.S. is still trying to sort out which rebels exactly will be given weapons and how, fearing that advanced arms may fall in the hands of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks.
Meanwhile, the Observatory said a rare attack in Damascus's old city Thursday was caused by an explosive device planted near a Shiite charity organization. The attack, which killed four people, was first believed to be a suicide attack near a church.
State media showed pictures of the body of the suspected suicide bomber in the ancient quarter. Residents had disagreed on the target of the attack but a government official also said a bomber wearing an explosive belt blew himself up near the Greek Orthodox Church.
But Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Observatory, said investigation by activists on the ground indicated that a device was planted near the Shiite charity, and it blew up when this man was walking past. The Observatory originally reported that the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber. The church and charity are only around two dozen meters (yards) apart.
The conflict has increasingly taken on sectarian overtones. The rebels fighting to remove Assad are largely Sunnis, and have been joined by foreign fighters from other Muslim countries. The regime of Assad is led by the president's Alawite sect and his forces have been joined by fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah militant group, a factor that has helped fan the sectarian nature of the conflict.
In an apparent snub to the targeting of a religious institution, The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement Friday that it "rejects" actions that violate the unity of Syrians and fuels sectarian strife, blaming the regime for attempting to incite it.
"The unfortunate practices of various individuals do not reflect the true values of the revolution," the statement said. "The Syrian Coalition reiterates that those who commit crimes and infringe on international conventions will be identified, pursued and brought to justice."