DAMASCUS, Syria — Mortar shells exploded near the Damascus Opera House today, killing two, state media said, as rebels intensified their shelling of the Syrian capital to relieve pressure on an opposition neighborhood that government forces have been trying to seize.
The opera, officially called the Assad House for Culture and Arts, is located near a cluster of government and security buildings and last year hosted a defiant speech by President Bashar Assad in which he vowed to continue fighting rebels seeking his overthrow.
Rebels holed up in the city’s rural periphery have focused their efforts on hitting the area, said an activist who uses the name Muaz al-Shami.
The Syrian state media outlet SANA said other mortar shells hit nearby areas on Sunday morning. On Saturday, mortar fire injured 22 people in the city.
Syrian rebels often fire mortar shells into Damascus from strongholds in outlying communities, but the fire has intensified this week as pro-Assad forces advance on the rural Ghuta suburb to the capital’s east, al-Shami said in a Skype interview from the area.
“They (rebels) are trying to shell security strongholds in Damascus. It’s an attempt to reduce pressure on the neighborhood,” he said.
Pro-Assad forces began fighting hard to seize Ghuta — a long-held opposition area — over the past five days, said al-Shami. As he spoke, explosions could be heard in the background. The area has been blockaded for six months.
The assault on Ghuta is part of a push by Assad forces to solidify its hold on Damascus by dislodging rebels from the towns and neighborhoods on the city’s fringes. The government has used twin tactics to achieve its aims: blockading rebellious areas to pressure them into submission and unleashing artillery and airstrikes on districts that refuse to bend.
Last week government forces seized the outskirts of the town of Mleiha, near the Ghouta area. That came after pro-Assad forces severed important rebel supply lines from the eastern Lebanese border into the Damascus periphery.
Al-Shami said rebels still had “secret lines” that allowed in food and weapons, and that they were making some projectiles in rudimentary workshops within the neighborhood.