In one of the deadliest attacks in the Syrian capital in the country’s seven-year civil war, at least 44 people, most of them women and children, were killed when insurgents fired mortar shells on a busy market in Damascus, state media said Wednesday.
In another bloody scene, an airstrike killed 21 – 16 of them children – in a rebel-held province in northwestern Syria, an activist said. The children, between 7 and 10 years old, were leaving their schools in Kfar Batkeeh village when jets began flying overhead.
Raghda Ghanoum, an activist near Kfar Batkeeh, said the children and four adults took cover in a cave nearby, where the airstrikes hit. Ghanoum said she documented 21 victim names, including 16 children.
The violence in both government-held and opposition-held areas came as Syrians celebrated Mother’s Day, turning the occasion that ushers the spring season into a blood-spattered day for families on both sides of the conflict.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 were killed in the airstrikes on the village.
The Observatory put the death toll in the market shelling in Damascus was 43, including 11 pro-government fighters. Videos of the aftermath posted online showed scenes of chaos, with people screaming and bodies and store mannequins strewn across the ground.
Hospital Director Mohammed Haitham al-Husseini told Al-Ikhbariya TV that 35 others were wounded in the mortar attack, with six in intensive care. He said most of the casualties were women and children.
Witnesses told state-run TV that the mortar shells fell during rush hour in the popular market on the eve of Mother’s Day, celebrated in the Middle East with the start of spring. A child said he was out shopping with his family for Mother’s Day when they heard a huge explosion. “Everyone started running, and people were going into narrow streets to give first aid to others,” the child said.
A woman speaking in the hospital said her niece, who was wounded by shrapnel, lost her four-year old son. “We just saw him in the morgue,” the woman told Al-Ikhbariya. The TV network did not identify the woman or the child.
The government blamed the attack on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, where Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes have been waging a major offensive over the past month that has killed hundreds of people.
Government forces meanwhile continued to pound opposition-held areas with shelling and airstrikes. The first-responders group known as the White Helmets said 56 civilians were killed Tuesday in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta, updating an earlier toll. Video from the White Helmets showed rescue workers surrounded by fire and ongoing shelling struggling to retrieve survivors from a building in Douma.
The assault on eastern Ghouta has displaced 45,000 people, the United Nations said Tuesday. Before the latest offensive, it was estimated that 400,000 people were trapped in the besieged region. The rebels first seized the area in 2012.
The Syrian Civil Defense said that since the latest offensive started a month ago, it documented 1,252 civilians killed in more than 2,990 airstrikes and hundreds of other shellings.
Government forces have made major gains in recent days, leaving just a small fraction of eastern Ghouta under rebel control. President Bashar Assad paid a rare visit to troops on the front lines over the weekend.
Syrian and Russian forces have opened a third corridor in eastern Ghouta to allow civilians to leave the town of Harasta, which is home to an estimated 20,000 people. Russia’s Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin said 300 civilians and 15 militants have exited through the corridor in the past 24 hours. He said the number of civilians fleeing rebel-held areas has been declining after tens of thousands left in recent days.
As in other besieged parts of Syria, government forces have pressed the rebels to enter into local cease-fire agreements under which the militants and their families would relocate to other parts of the country. The Syrian opposition has criticized such agreements, saying they reward the government’s siege tactics and legitimize the forced displacement of civilians from their homes.
Syrian state media and a rebel spokesman said a deal has been reached to evacuate 7,500 gunmen and their families from a town in eastern Ghouta to an opposition-held province in northern Syria.
The deal would be the first instance of fighters evacuating the rebel-held region east of Damascus which has been under a ferocious government air and ground assault for a month.
The state-run Addounia TV says 1,500 gunmen and 6000 of their relatives would be evacuated Thursday from the town of Harasta would be evacuated in two batches to Idlib.
Monther Fares, a spokesman for the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group, said the deal gives security guarantees for those who decide to stay in the town after the government takes over.
Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.