DAMASCUS, Syria – Two mortars exploded next to a soccer stadium in central Damascus on Wednesday, killing one player as violence moved closer to the heart of President Bashar Assad's seat of power and into areas of the capital once considered safe.
The mortar attack was the second in as many days in Damascus. On Tuesday, two mortars exploded near one of Assad's palaces, but no one was hurt.
The SANA state news agency said the mortars on Wednesday landed in a complex housing Tishrin Stadium and a hotel in the Baramkeh neighborhood, killing a player from al-Wathbah club based in Homs. He was wounded inside the hotel as players were getting ready for practice and died later at a hospital.
State TV broadcast video of what it said was the hotel. The explosion blew out the windows on the first floor of the building, while shattered glass covered three beds in a one of the rooms. A bloodied duffle bag lay on the floor.
Players from al-Wathbah team who witnessed the attack identified the dead teammate as Youssef Suleiman. The 19-year-old striker had played internationally on one of Syria's national youth teams. They said he was the father of a 6-month-old baby.
Suleiman's teammates said the mortars landed in front of the hotel, where players normally stayed.
"We were collecting our things about to head to the stadium when we heard the first explosion and the windows were blown off," said Ali Ghosn, a 20-year-old player.
"Youssef was hit in the neck. We ran out to the corridor when the second explosion struck and I saw Youssef fall down bleeding from his neck," he told The Associated Press in Damascus as some of his colleagues wept.
Three other players were wounded, including one who was in critical condition.
The attack occurred a few hours before the team was to play the Hama-based al-Mawaair club. The game was postponed after the mortar strike.
The match is part of the domestic league, which has been delayed several times due to fighting. The nine-team league got under way just last week with all matches scheduled to be played in the heavily guarded capital in front of empty stands.
"We are football players," Ghosn said. "These people don't want what is good for Syria. They are criminals."
Assad has tried to maintain an image as the head of a functioning state even as rebels edge closer to the heart of Damascus and targeted attacks suggest rebels may be trying to shatter the sense of normalcy he has tried to portray in the capital.
Damascus has largely been spared the violence that has left other cities in ruins.
In recent weeks, however, rebels who established footholds in the suburbs of Damascus have been clashing with government forces, pushing closer to the center of the capital from the east and south.
The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad's rule. The revolt turned into a civil war that has taken increasingly sectarian overtones with mostly Sunni Muslim opposition forces fighting to topple the regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group.
The international community is at a loss as to how to end the bloodshed.
On Wednesday, Russia and the Arab League offered to broker talks between Assad's regime and the Cairo-based opposition group dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow and the Arab League were trying to establish direct contact between the two sides, saying that only a negotiated settlement will end the fighting.
"Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it's a road to nowhere — a road to mutual destruction of the people," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow after hosting Arab League officials and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Lebanon and other countries.
No conditions for negotiations have been set.
Both Lavrov and Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby said the main priority was to set up a transitional government in Syria to navigate a way out of the conflict.
The Western-backed opposition coalition has rejected talks with Damascus as long as Assad remains in power. The Syrian leader has repeatedly made it clear that he will not step down, but offered the opposition to open reconciliation talks that he would lead.
Moscow has been the main protector of Assad's beleaguered regime, joining with China at the U.N. Security Council to block attempts to impose sanctions on Assad's regime.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead a delegation to Moscow on Monday, and Russia is expecting a visit in March from the Syrian National Coalition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib.
For now, fighting continues unabated around the country.
Activists said government war planes hit rebel positions around Damascus and near the northern city of Aleppo, where troops have been battling rebels for control of an international airport.
The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said the military was "valiantly defending" the airport. The report claimed the airport remained under military control but was under intense "attacks by gunmen" — a rare acknowledgement of the fierce fighting around Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, rebels shot down a government fighter jet, according to the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.