BEIRUT: Syrian fighter jets Sunday bombed Damascus suburbs in a government offensive to dislodge rebels from strategic areas around the capital, activists said, as clashes raged around army bases and air fields in the country’s north. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes were hitting towns and villages around the capital, while regime forces targeted other neighborhoods with artillery and mortars.
Government forces killed at least 26 people, half of them children, in a bombardment of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta town of Mliha.
Video footage showed women weeping over the dismembered bodies of children strewn across a field, near an air defense base on the edge of the town, 5 km east of Damascus.
Mliha is the last major fortification in the area east of Damascus not yet to have fallen to the rebels. President Bashar Assad’s core troops and security personnel, mostly belonging to his minority Alawite sect, are entrenched in the capital.
“God is greater than you, Bashar,” one of the activists is shown saying as a youth carries the torso of a child.
The footage was taken by activists and could not be independently verified.
Activist Yasmine al-Shami, speaking by phone from Damascus, said residential areas around Mliha and in the working-class suburbs of Hazzeh, Kfar Batna and Douma were being heavily hit.
“The regime has gone mad with bombardment today,” said Shami.
“ Footage that has been coming in is heartbreaking. Among the dead is a mother, Heba al-Lahham, and her three children, who were playing in a field in Hazzeh.”
A report by the opposition Damascus Media Center said rebels had been attacking the Mliha base with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars for five days, and the army had fired over 600 rockets on the town in response.
“The base has a large number of tanks and armor and stockpiles of ammunition. There is information that the Free Syrian Army has destroyed five tanks and one armored vehicle,” the report said.
A member of the group said Assad’s forces were bombarding civilian areas to try to weaken support for the rebels.
“This is the last base standing in the east between the rebels and Damascus. It is a huge compound and the regime is bombarding heavily to keep the rebels from mounting a concerted offensive to take it over,” he said.
A commander in Liwa al-Islam, one of several rebel brigades fighting in the area, said the compound was well defended. “Our objective is to take it, but it will not be immediate,” he added.
Elsewhere in the capital, the Observatory said troops were battling opposition rebels in the suburb of Daraya a day after government officials claimed the army had taken much of the strategic area, which lies on the edge of a major military air base southwest of the capital.
Syrian troops have been pushing since November to regain Daraya, which had a population of about 200,000 before the fighting.
Thousands have fled the relentless violence, among more than 2 million Syrians who have been internally displaced during the civil war.
At least half a million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Because of its strategic location, rebel control of the Daraya poses a particularly grave threat to the capital.
The suburb is flanked by the key districts of Mezzeh, home to a military air base, and Kfar Souseh, where the government headquarters, the General Security intelligence agency head office and the Interior Ministry are located.
Violence around the capital has been rising since the army last July launched an offensive against rebels who had moved into a few neighborhoods.
Analysts say the regime is attempting to secure an area of control in a radius of about eight kilometers around the city.
While Assad’s loyalists still appear to have an upper hand on the Damascus front due to the regime’s air power, rebels fighters dealt the government a major blow in the north by capturing a sprawling air base in Idlib province Friday.
Rebels retained control of the Taftanaz base Sunday and intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, activists said.
Among the rebels taking part in the battle are fighters from Nusra Front, an Islamist group that the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization.
Washington said that the group, among the most organized and effective rebel forces on the ground, is affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Official statements regularly play up the role of Islamist militants in the civil war and refer to the rebels as terrorists.
Also Sunday, Turkish state media said Assad’s fighter jets bombed the town of Azaz near the Turkish border.
At least 10 civilians were killed in the airstrikes, according to the Observatory. Many of the wounded were brought across the border to the Turkish province of Kilis for treatment, the Turkey state-run Anadolu agency said.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since the revolt started almost two years ago.
Heavy fighting was reported Sunday in the northern province of Deir el-Zor, involving attacks by warplanes, activists said.
Last month an international aid group, Doctors Without Borders, said tens of thousands, many of them wounded, are trapped in Deir el-Zor.
In Aleppo, where rebels fought government troops to a stalemate last year, the two sides clashed near the air force intelligence building in the Zahra neighborhood.
The state-run SANA news agency said an army unit killed “a number of terrorists and destroyed a convoy of cars that was transporting weapons, ammunition and terrorists” in Deir al-Zor.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi formed a ministerial committee to conduct dialogue with opposition groups, SANA reported.
The dialogue is part of efforts to implement a peace plan Assad outlined in a speech a week ago.
In his first address to the nation in six months, Assad rejected international calls to step down and offered to oversee a national reconciliation conference, while rejecting any talks with the armed opposition and vowing to continue fighting them.
The speech was condemned by the United States and its Western and Gulf Arab allies, while Assad’s backers in Russia and Iran said his proposal should be considered.
In a rare demonstration in Damascus, dozens of protesters staged a sit-in at the Justice Ministry Sunday, demanding the minister move against merchants who activists claim are trying to profit from the crisis by raising prices of cooking gas, flour and bread.
Food prices have soared in the past year in Syria, as the value of the local currency plummeted because of the conflict and an international ban on oil exports.