Syria army ramps up shelling near capital ahead of talks
Syrian government forces on Monday escalated their bombing campaign around Damascus, raining shells down on rebel territory and sending out a "bloody message" just days before renewed peace talks in Geneva.
Representatives from the opposition and of President Bashar al-Assad's government are to head to Switzerland on Thursday for another attempt to end their country's brutal six-year war.
The United Nations expressed alarm over the violence in the Damascus.
UN officials have received reports of civilian deaths and injuries from shelling in Qabun, Barzeh, Tishreen and western Harasta districts of the city, said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.
"The UN is alarmed by the intensification of fighting in the Damascus area in recent days," said Haq.
Over 100,000 civilians in need live in those neighborhoods which have seen an upsurge in fighting since Saturday, he added.
Government forces on Monday escalated their bombing of the edges of Syria's capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists on the ground.
"The toll in regime air strikes on (northern rebel district of Damascus) Barzeh has increased to seven people, including a woman and child," the Observatory said, adding that 12 more had been wounded.
The Britain-based monitor said rockets also hit the northeastern opposition-controlled neighbourhood of Qaboun overnight and into Monday morning.
Rebels and government forces reached a local ceasefire deal in Qaboun in 2014, but violence has built up in the neighbourhood since last week.
At least 16 people were killed on Saturday in government rocket fire on a funeral in Qaboun, according to the Observatory.
"This is the third day of bombardment - rockets, artillery, mortars, and air strikes," said media activist Hamza Abbas, speaking to AFP via internet from Qaboun, where he said he could hear non-stop shelling.
A Syrian military source contacted by AFP declined to comment on the operations.
Violence in western Syria has increasingly tarnished a shaky ceasefire that took effect on 30 December with the support of Russia, which backs the government, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups.
A medical worker in Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, said at least 13 people had died. He said he could hear explosions coming from Qaboun early on Sunday.
Witnesses said hundreds of families fled their homes in Qaboun and rebel-held parts of Harasta and Barza that were shelled by the army and sought refuge in Eastern Ghouta.
Rescue workers said army shelling also hit Douma, the main rebel stronghold in Eastern Ghouta with at least two dead.
Clashes in Deraa
Separately, heavy clashes continued in the southern border city of Deraa, where rebels said they had made progress in a week-long offensive where they hope to seize the strategic district of Manshiya.
Rebels said their capture of the district would thwart repeated army attempts to rupture supply lines linking rebel-held areas to the east and west of the city.
The army has also been trying to recapture a main border crossing with Jordan that has been in rebel hands near Manshiya.
Russian and Syrian army jets on Sunday attacked the rebel-held border-town of Nasib, near Deraa, killing at least six civilians, a rebel spokesman and a medic said.
Air strikes have intensified in the last few days on towns to the west, north and east of Deraa. Residents said the attacks had put out of action several field hospitals and a major storage tank providing water in rebel-held territory.
Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, who for years fended off Western criticism and skillfully defended Moscow's actions in Ukraine and Syria, died on Monday in New York. He was 64.
Churkin collapsed while at work at the Russian mission to the UN and was rushed to a Manhattan hospital, apparently suffering from heart problems, diplomatic sources said.
In a statement, the foreign ministry in Moscow described him as an "outstanding diplomat." There was no information on the cause of death.
Syria's opposition on Sunday lambasted the government's renewed bombing campaign around the capital, accusing it of being aimed at sabotaging the peace talks.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said the attacks near Damascus and elsewhere across the country were "obstructing the efforts aimed at a political transition in Syria".
"It is a bloody message from a criminal regime just a few days ahead of political negotiations in Geneva that demonstrates its rejection of any political solution," the HNC said in an online statement.
The HNC - formed in December 2015 - has emerged as the leading umbrella group for Syria's opposition factions, and has a new chief opposition negotiator for the Geneva talks, lawyer Mohammed Sabra.
He replaces Mohamed Alloush of the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), a powerful rebel faction headquartered in the opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta.
The district, which has faced a blistering army offensive in recent months, lies near opposition-controlled areas of Damascus that are being increasingly targeted by the government.
Assad's government is "bitterly determined to rid itself of the insurgent enclave, one way or another," analyst Aron Lund wrote in a post for the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center.
"However weakened and contained, Eastern Ghouta remains a dagger pointed at the heart of Assad's regime and it ties down many thousands of soldiers," Lund said.
Overrunning the area could have a significant impact on peace talks "since no opposition delegation would be of much value" without the Army of Islam, Lund added.
'Ink on paper'
Thursday's talks in Switzerland will be the fourth round of UN-hosted peace negotiations, and Syrians caught in the six-year conflict did not have much hope for a political solution.
Radwan al-Homsi, a media activist in northwest Syria, told AFP that violence always increased after previous talks in Geneva in 2012, 2014, and 2016.
"This time around, just like any other conference, it will be just ink on paper," Homsi told AFP in the town of Binnish.
"It's actually the opposite - we're now very scared of anything called a conference, because after every conference, there's a military campaign," the 27-year-old said.
Since the last round of talks in April 2016, rebels have lost their stronghold in east Aleppo and seen a new partnership form between Turkey and Russia.
Along with Assad ally Iran, the Ankara and Moscow have hosted two rounds of talks between government officials and prominent rebels in the Kazakh capital.