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Report: Syrian missile attacks killing hundreds of civilians

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In this file photo, night falls on a Syrian rebel-controlled area as destroyed buildings, including Dar Al-Shifa hospital, are seen on Sa'ar street after airstrikes targeted the area last week, killing dozens in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)

The Syrian military is firing ballistic missiles into populated areas where it is battling rebels, killing hundreds of civilians in recent months, Human Rights Watch said in a report Monday.

The U.S.-based group said it has investigated nine apparent missile attacks that killed at least 215 people, half of them children, between February and July. The most recent attack HRW investigated occurred in the northern province of Aleppo on July 26, killing at least 33 civilians including 17 children.

HRW activists visited the sites of seven of the nine attacks and found no apparent military targets nearby, the group said. Ole Solvang, a senior researcher with HRW, said it's impossible to distinguish between civilians and fighters when firing missiles with wide-ranging destructive effects into densely populated areas.

"Even if there are fighters in the area, you cannot accurately target them and the impact in some of these cases has been devastating to local civilians," Solvang said in a statement.

The HRW called on President Bashar Assad to stop indiscriminate attacks.

Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The military has repeatedly denied it is targeting civilians during the 2-year conflict, saying its troops are fighting "terrorists" hiding in civilian areas.

More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It turned into an armed uprising after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

The Assad government claims it is not facing a popular revolt, but a conspiracy by Gulf Arab states and the West seeking to destroy Syria by supplying Islamic extremists with weapons and funds.

In his last public appearance late Sunday, Assad called on the Syrians to unite behind the army's efforts to "defend their homeland."

"There is no solution with terrorism but to strike with an iron fist," Assad was quoted as saying by state news agency SANA. "With this kind of battles that aim at the destruction of the cultural identity and the Syrian national fabric, we either win together as Syrians or lose together."

Assad spoke while taking part in an iftar, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.