BEIRUT – A Syrian missile strike leveled a block of buildings in an impoverished district of northern Syria Tuesday, killing at least 33 people, almost half of them children, and trapping many others under the rubble of destroyed houses and piles of concrete, anti-regime activists said.
The apparent ground-to-ground missile attack on a quiet area that has been held by anti-regime fighters for many months underlines the brutality and unpredictability of the Syrian conflict and the helplessness of rebels in protecting areas under their control in light of the regime's far superior firepower and air supremacy.
In the capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said two mortars exploded near one of Assad's palaces, dealing a symbolic blow to the embattled leader who has tried to maintain an image as the head of a functioning state, despite rebels edging closer to the heart of his seat of power.
The attack was the first confirmed strike close to a presidential palace and another sign that the civil war is seeping into areas of the capital once considered safe.
"This is a clear message to the regime that nowhere is safe from now on," said Khaled al-Shami, an activist in Damascus reached via Skype. "The fact that they had to announce it means they can no longer hide what is happening in Damascus."
The news service, SANA, said "terrorists" fired the rounds that struck near the southern wall of the Tishreen palace in the capital's northwestern Muhajireen district. The government rebels to anti-government fighters as "terrorists."
No casualties were reported and it was unclear whether Assad was in the palace. He has two others in the city. Assad often uses the Tishrin palace to receive dignitaries and as a guest house for foreign officials during their visits to Syria.
The Syrian capital has largely been spared the violence that has left other Syrian cities in ruins. For weeks, however, rebels who have established footholds in the suburbs have been pushing closer to the heart of the city from the eastern and southern outskirts, clashing with government forces.
Rebels have claimed to fire rockets at the presidential palaces before, but Tuesday's strike was the first confirmed by the government.
In the northern city of Aleppo, anti-regime activists said a missile strike flattened a stretch of buildings and killed at least 33 people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they included 14 children and five women.
Amateur videos posted online showed scores of men combing through the rubble of destroyed buildings in the poor Jabal Badro neighborhood to find those trapped beneath it. "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, they shout as a body a group of men lift up a body wrapped in a pink blanket.
One man swung a sledgehammer to break through concrete while a bulldozer hauled off rubble. In another video, a man covered in grey dust struggled under pile of concrete.
The videos appeared authentic and corresponded with other Associated Press reporting.
The strike was the latest salvo in a fierce and bloody 7-month battle for Syria's largest city and economic center, a key prize in the civil war.
Rebels have slowly expanded their control over parts of Aleppo since first storming it last summer. The city is now divided between rebel- and regime-controlled zones.
Rebel forces have been trying for weeks to capture the city's international airport and two military airbases nearby, while the government is bringing in reinforcements from areas it still controls further south and regularly bombing rebel areas from the air.
The activist Aleppo Media Center said more than 40 were killed and published the names of 21 off them on its Facebook page. There was no way to reconcile the differing tolls.
Both the Observatory and AMC groups said the strike appeared to be from a ground-to-ground missile. The Syrian government did not comment.
Activist Mohammed al-Khatib of the AMC said via Skype that the death toll could rise further as residents search the site for more bodies.
"There are still lots of people missing from the area," he said.
He said the strike appeared to be from a large ground-to-ground missile because of the scale of the destruction and because residents did not report hearing a fighter jet, as they usually do during airstrikes.
Although President Bashar Assad's forces regularly shell and launch airstrikes on areas held by anti-government rebels, their use of large missiles has been limited. The Jabal Badro district has been under rebel control since months and has been largely quiet until Tuesday's attack.
In December, U.S. and NATO officials confirmed rebel reports that Syrian forces had fired Scud missiles at rebel areas in northern Syria. That was the last confirmed use of such weapons.
Also Wednesday, rebels clashed with government forces near Aleppo's international airport and the Kweiras military airport nearby, the Observatory said. Clashes have halted air traffic to the two airports for weeks, since rebels launched their offensive to try to capture them.
The Observatory also reported government shelling and airstrikes and clashes between government forces and rebels east and south of the capital, Damascus. Seven people were killed in rocket strikes on the eastern suburb of Kafar Batna and five died in a car bombing in Jdeidat al-Fadel, southwest off the capital, it said.
Syria refers to rebels seeking to topple Assad as "terrorists" and blames the conflict on an international conspiracy to weaken the country.
The U.N. says some 70,000 have been killed since Syria's uprising against Assad's rule began in March 2011. Moreover, some 870,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries since the beginning of the conflict, with the majority seeking refuge in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
The violence has spread humanitarian suffering across much of Syria.
The U.N.'s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has quadrupled since June last year.
"Just in the last two months, over 250,000 people have fled into neighboring countries. These numbers, they are not sustainable," she said at a press conference in Geneva.
The United States announced Tuesday it was providing an addition $19 million in humanitarian assistance in response to urgent needs in Syria. The announcement made in Geneva by Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, brings the United States' total contribution of humanitarian support in response to this crisis to nearly $385 million.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the violence. The U.S. and other Arab and European countries have called on Assad to stand down, while Russia, China and Iran continue to back him. Russia, Syria's largest arms supplies for decades, has said it will continue to fulfill its arms contracts with Assad's regime.
Russia on Tuesday said it had sent two jets carrying humanitarian aid to Syria and are inviting Russians who want to leave the country to take the flights back.