DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Rebels entrenched in an eastern suburb of Damascus fired volleys of mortar shells into the Syrian capital on Sunday, killing three people, including a child, and wounding 33, Syria's state-run news agency and residents said. Government forces hit back with airstrikes that activists said killed at least 28 people.
The Damascus suburb, known as Eastern Ghouta, is held by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad who often launch mortars into Damascus, his seat of power.
Sunday's barrage — more than 40 mortar shells according to one report — was particularly strong and sustained, shaking residents out of bed in the early morning as shells struck residential districts.
SANA said a child was killed and three people were wounded, and said the shells caused material damage to cars and buildings.
The government responded with airstrikes and missiles on suspected rebel outposts in Eastern Ghouta.
The Local Coordination Committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, two opposition outfits that track the war, said at least 28 people were killed in Douma and Saqba, which are part of the same sprawling suburb.
The Observatory reported earlier that 40 shells hit Damascus on Sunday. The shelling came as the United Nations humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, was visiting the Syrian capital to review humanitarian work and assess the impact on civilians of the intensified fighting and military operations.
Following a meeting with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, O'Brien said he was pursuing efforts to have humanitarian aid reach all Syrian people. Al-Moallem, according to SANA, emphasized the need for reconciliation and local truces to help in that regard.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah announced the names of at least 11 militants it said were killed while fighting in Syria.
The Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group has sent thousands of fighters to shore up Assad's forces. It was not clear when the 11 fighters were killed, but one security official said it happened in the past 48 hours, most of them in Syria's Qalamoun mountains near the border with Lebanon, where militants operate, including Syria's al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Syria's nearly five-year conflict, which has left the country divided and devastated. Islamic extremists, including the Islamic State group and its rival, the Nusra Front, control roughly half the country.
Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani said in rare comments aired late Saturday that local truces only benefit the government. He criticized last week's deal in the Homs neighborhood of Waer, which saw a few hundred insurgents pull out of the district in return for a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian aid. Nusra Front fighters and other hard-line rebels were among those who evacuated Waer after rejecting the cease-fire deal.
"Truces are the first step to surrender," al-Golani told a small group of local and supportive journalists, remarks that were aired on the opposition Orient TV.
He also criticized as "unacceptable" a meeting of opposition factions held this week in Saudi Arabia, during which a framework for taking part in proposed peace negotiations with the government was reached.
He claimed the international community's goal is to incorporate the armed opposition with government forces, keeping Assad as president, as a prelude to fighting extremist factions.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.