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Syrian troops storm into refugee district

Syrian rebels in Aleppo prepare to do battle against government forces as the battle for the city rages on. Photo: AFP

Syrian rebels in Aleppo prepare to do battle against government forces as the battle for the city rages on. Photo: AFP

Syrian government troops stormed into a Palestinian refugee district and raided its hospital yesterday after a four-day artillery assault on the southern suburb where rebels have been hiding out, opposition activists said.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have preferred to use air power and artillery to hit areas where rebels are dug in, deploying infantry only once many have fled. Activists said they feared for civilian inhabitants in the new ground onslaught.

The almost 18-month-old conflict spilled further over borders when three rockets fired from Syria crashed into an Iraqi frontier town, killing a five-year-old girl, according to local inhabitants and Iraqi officials.

Assad’s use of military force to quell an uprising that began as a peaceful pro-democracy movement has cost him many allies in the Arab and Muslim world and caused a trickle of defections from Syrian government and army ranks.

Syrian activist Abu Yasser al-Shami said that his friends living in Yarmouk, a densely populated Palestinian refugee camp where 10 people were killed on Friday in shelling, had fled the area yesterday morning after government troops swept in. “Assad’s forces stormed al-Basel hospital in Yarmouk Camp and arrested many of the injured civilians,” he said over Skype.

When insurgents thrust into central parts of the capital in July, they were swiftly pushed back to southern districts, like Yarmouk, where there is a thinner state security presence.

Activists say Assad has been reluctant to use infantry as the army is made mostly of conscripts drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom seen as desertion risks. Some defected soldiers say morale is low in the barracks and that only officers from Assad’s Alawite sect are giving orders.

Residents complain that the army uses indiscriminate artillery and air strikes. Palestinians have been divided over whether or not to support Assad, but there are signs that more and more are now starting to back the uprising.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition watchdog based in London, said shells rained down on Hajar al-Aswad district, which neighbours Yarmouk, yesterday.

It said 170 people were killed in bloodshed on Friday across the country, many of them in Damascus and northern Aleppo, where rebels say they control more than half of the city.

The conflict has edged ominously over Syrian borders into neighbours with sectarian tensions echoing those of Syria,  where mainly Sunni insurgents are pitted against Assad’s Alawite community whose faith is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

As rebels fought government forces for an airfield and military base near the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, Katyusha rockets hit a residential area of al Qaim in Iraq, smashing through a wall of one house and killing a girl inside.

“She was sitting on my lap just before we heard the rocket. I knew she was dead immediately after the explosion,” said Firas Attallah, the girl’s father, showing a bloodstained mattress amid the shattered glass in his home.

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