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UN envoy in Syria talks as child toll mounts

July 15, 2013 8:17 P.M. (Updated: July 16, 2013 8:36 P.M.)
DAMASCUS (AFP) -- The UN's special envoy on children in war was in Syria for talks on Monday, as concern mounts over the rising child death toll in the bloody two-year conflict.

Six children were among 29 people killed in a devastating army bombardment of five villages in the northwest as residents prepared to break the daytime fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, a watchdog reported on Monday.

As US- and Russian-backed efforts to convene a Syria peace conference have faltered, regime forces have launched counter-attacks against the rebels in the northwest, in the center and around the capital.

Leila Zerrougui, the UN secretary general's special representative on children and armed conflict, will spend three days in Syria, the United Nations said.

She is to meet with government officials, UN representatives and non-governmental organizations, as part of a tour that will also take her to neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, which are hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog, more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, more than 5,000 of them children under the age of 16.

The deadliest of Sunday's air and artillery bombardments of villages in the northwestern province of Idlib struck Maghara, where 13 people were killed, the Observatory said.

Another six people were killed in the village of Al-Bara, four in Basamis, three in Kfar Nabl in an air strike, and three in Iblin, according to the Britain-based group, which relies on a network of activists, lawyers and doctors on the ground across Syria.

The dead included at least eight women as well as the six children, it added.

Video footage posted online by activists showed harrowing scenes of death and destruction in Maghara, with survivors screaming as the camera panned over the rubble.

"God is great. Where are our Muslim brothers? Where are our Arab brothers?" the activist says as he films residents trying to dig out people trapped beneath the wreckage of their homes.

"This is the iftar of the Muslims in Jabal Zawiya," he said, referring to the hill district where the village lies.

A second video showed smoke billowing over the village and residents lifting a dust-covered older man, his stomach torn open, onto a flat-bed truck.

Another man lay dead on the ground, his body and clothes covered in grey dust flecked with blood, his mouth open, his arm curled upwards and his hand lying on his chest.

The attacks came as the army pressed an offensive in the Damascus district of Qaboon, where the regime is trying to uproot several rebel rear-bases.

The Observatory said at least 18 people were killed in the fighting.

On Sunday, the group warned that hundreds of families were trapped in the district because regime snipers were posted on the outskirts. There was no immediate update on their plight.

In a statement, the Syrian opposition National Coalition charged that regime troops were using residents of the districts as "human shields."

"Humanitarian corridors must be established immediately to evacuate women, children, and the wounded in Qaboon," the group added in statement.

On Monday, the pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported fierce fighting between the army and rebels over the weekend.

"The army has stressed that operations in Qaboon pave the way for ridding the neighborhood of militants, who have lost most of their sites because of the army's actions."

President Bashar Assad's regime has made eradicating rebel rear-bases in the Damascus region a priority as it seeks to prevent the insurgents from attacking the capital.

Nationwide, at least 129 people were killed in Sunday's violence, the Observatory said.

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