By Oliver Holmes and Hamdi Istanbullu | Reuters
BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Fifteen Syrian students were killed when rebel mortar shells hit a Damascus University canteen on Thursday, state-run news agency SANA said, as attacks intensified in the center of the capital.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group, said a mortar killed 13 people at the university, without saying who fired the bombs.
Other activists confirmed the attack but no opposition group has denied or claimed responsibility.
Insurgents trying to end four decades of rule by the family of President Bashar al-Assad have formed a semi-circle around the capital and intensified attacks from positions on the outskirts this week.
A bastion for Assad’s forces, the capital city is a crucial prize in a two-year-old uprising that has developed into a war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed.
Another 1.2 million Syrians have also fled to neighboring countries and North Africa, where they have registered as refugees or are awaiting processing, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Highlighting the strain the conflict is placing on neighboring states, Turkey, host to about 260,000 of the refugees, denied on Thursday it had rounded up and deported hundreds of Syrians following unrest at a refugee camp.
SANA said mortar rounds landed in a canteen at the College of Architecture in Baramkeh, a central district near several government buildings, including the Defense Ministry, the headquarters for state media and Assad’s official residence.
Pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV showed images of doctors trying to resuscitate at least two young men and blood on the floor of what appeared to be an outdoor canteen. A young woman was shown walking in a hospital, her face bleeding heavily.
SANA quoted the president of Damascus University as saying the death toll, initially put at 12, had risen to 15 in what state and pro-government media called a terrorist attack.
Last weekend rebel groups sent out warnings on the Internet that they planned to intensify strikes on government and military sites in the city and warned residents they should leave to avoid what they called “Operation Shaking the Fort”.
The United Nations said on Monday it would withdraw about half of its international staff from Damascus after a mortar bomb landed near their hotel.
The Syrian military has responded to rebel attacks with artillery shelling and air strikes on suburbs where rebels are entrenched among thousands of civilians trapped in crossfire.
On Thursday, opposition activists said rebels had taken the main bus station in northeastern Damascus. They provided footage of fighters walking around a deserted area and stamping on a framed picture of Assad. (http://link.reuters.com/peg96t)
Government reporting restrictions make it difficult to verify such accounts independently.