Mortar kills 20 students at Damascus university

UNHCR investigates claim that Turkey has forced refugees back across the border

Syrian soldiers and investigators at an outdoor cafe that was hit by mortar shells at Damascus University yesterday in which about 20 students died. Photograph: Andrea Bruce/New York Times

Syrian soldiers and investigators at an outdoor cafe that was hit by mortar shells at Damascus University yesterday in which about 20 students died. Photograph: Andrea Bruce/New York Times

Fri, Mar 29, 2013, 06:54

A mortar strike on Damascus university killed about 20 students yesterday, exposing the fragility of the capital’s most sensitive zone to attack.

Syrian officials blamed rebel groups for the strike, which wounded dozens more students. The opposition denied responsibility.

All the victims had been in an outdoors cafeteria near the heart of the campus. It was the second consecutive day that mortars hit the city. An attack on Wednesday struck near a hotel, causing damage but no casualties.

The presidential palace has in recent weeks also been hit by rockets and mortars fired by rebel groups, who have consolidated inroads they made earlier this year on the city’s southern and western outskirts.

The groups are a mix of Islamist-leaning and more secular brigades. The jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra is also active, particularly in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp nearer the heart of the city, which it entered in January.

Throughout the first three months of the year, loyalist forces and rebel groups have fought a series of savage battles on the urban fringes, often involving rockets and mortars and air strikes from the regime side.

Rebels have been trying to cut off access to Damascus airport and to use the area as staging ground for an assault on the capital, which is protected by two of the Syrian military’s most capable divisions and a large special forces unit.

Large numbers of Damascus residents, including much of the middle class and refugees, have fled the city for Lebanon or Jordan, both of which are now groaning under the influx. Lebanon alone is believed to be hosting 350,000 children of school age. Many thousands more have not been registered by authorities.

Aid dollars have started to reach the sprawling tent cities that are housing the refugees, who number more than one million with those who have fled to Turkey included. The onset of spring has eased housing fears, but the camps remain in desperate need and often squalid.

Brawls broke out at a camp near the Jordanian border yesterday and Turkish riot police used water cannons in a camp in Akcakale after refugees protested over the death of a child from a tent fire, in which three other people were also wounded. The UNHCR, the UN refugee body, said it was investigating claims, denied by Turkey, that up to 60 Syrians from the camp's 25,000 residents, had been forced to return to Syria after the disturbance.

– ( Guardian service)