Syria bombs Damascus suburbs to keep rebels out

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BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government bombed areas around Damascus on Monday 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 the organization warned that Syria’s civil war could inflame tensions in the Middle East.

After nearly two years of violence, it appears unlikely 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 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 U.S. and others that he step down and vowed to keep fighting until the country is free of “terrorists” — his government’s shorthand for rebels.

International diplomacy has done little to bridge the gap.

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, said that 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 U.N. 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 inside and outside of Syria as well as open borders to allow those threatened by violence to escape.

Violence continued inside Syria on Monday, 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. Activist videos posted online showed residents searching for survivors and wrapping dead bodies in blankets. One video showed two corpses lying face down, one covered in gray cement dust. Another showed the bodies of six children laid out on a floor. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting.

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