Syria bombs Damascus suburbs

Push to keep rebels out of the capital leaves dozens dead

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BEIRUT -- The Syrian government on Monday bombed areas around Damascus as part of its push to keep rebel fighters out of the capital, leaving many children among the dozens killed, anti-regime activists said.

An international aid organization cited such raids, along with rape and widespread destruction, as key factors in the exodus of more than a half-million Syrians to neighboring countries since the conflict began in March 2011. The International Rescue Committee said it could be "months, if not years" before the refugees can return home, and it warned that Syria's civil war could inflame tensions in the Middle East.

After nearly two years of violence, it appears unlikely that the war will end soon. Although rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad have made gains in the country's north and east and outside of Damascus, they have yet to seriously challenge his hold on the capital or other parts of the country.

Earlier this month, Mr. Assad dismissed calls from the United States and others that he step down and vowed to keep fighting until the country is free of "terrorists" -- his government's shorthand for rebels.

In a report released Monday, the International Rescue Committee painted a grim picture of what life has become for Syrians in war-torn areas. Syrians face brutal killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, frequent airstrikes, sexual violence and diminishing medical services, the report said.

The 32-page report, based on interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq in November 2012, said many who fled the country cited rape as a primary reason. "Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men," the report said. "These rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members."

The group did not say if the alleged perpetrators were rebels or government forces. Anti-regime activists have reported rapes by government soldiers or pro-government thugs, and United Nations war crimes investigators reported in August that government forces and allied militias were responsible for murders, rapes and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

The report warned that violence could keep Syria's refugees in neighboring countries for years, taxing the resources of host governments and inflaming domestic tensions, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon. It called for greater international aid in Syria and outside as well as open borders to allow those threatened by violence to escape.

Violence continued Monday in Syria, as government fighter jets carried out lethal airstrikes on rebellious areas near Damascus. One strike hit the suburb of Moadamiyeh, blasting the walls off apartment blocks and scattering rubble in the streets.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 people were killed in the Moadamiyeh blast, eight children and five women. The group, which relies on contacts in Syria, also reported deadly airstrikes in two other suburbs, saying at least 45 people were killed in and around the capital Monday, including 10 rebel fighters.

The Syrian regime offered its own account of the Moadamiyeh blast, saying "terrorists" fired a shell at the neighborhood, hitting a residential building and causing unspecified casualties.

Rebel fighters said the strike on Moadamiyeh came amid a government offensive to push rebel fighters from there and the adjacent southwest suburb of Daraya. Rebels moved into the two suburbs weeks ago, but have been bogged down in clashes with government troops since then. Both areas put rebel forces within striking distance of a key military airport in the Mezzeh neighborhood. The Observatory said Monday that the government had blown up homes between the airport and the neighborhoods to establish a buffer zone.

The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis began with anti-regime protests. The conflict has since descended into civil war, with rebel brigades across the nation fighting Assad forces. International diplomacy has failed to end the conflict.

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