Insurgents fired mortar rounds at one of President Bashar al-Assad’s palaces in the Syrian capital today, as the death toll mounted from a devastating missile strike on second city Aleppo.

The shelling, which was claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army, came as dozens of Russians left the war-battered country on a plane sent by Moscow as its navy reportedly sent four warships to the Mediterranean for a larger evacuation.

The fresh violence came as the United Nations said more than four million people inside Syria are in desperate need of aid, up sharply from 2.5 million in September.

In Damascus, two mortar shells crashed into an area “near the southern wall of Tishreen palace” and two hospitals, causing damage but no casualties, state news agency SANA quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Little is known about Assad’s movements, and Tishreen is normally reserved for dignitaries, but it was the first time his regime has reported shells falling near a palace since the conflict flared 23 months ago.

The military council of the rebel Free Syrian Army announced on Facebook that “the Free Army has fired mortars at the Tishreen presidential palace” in west Damascus.

The shelling came a day after an apparent surface-to-surface missile attack flattened a residential area of Aleppo city, killing at least 31 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today.

Fourteen children and five women were among the dead, and the “toll is likely to rise as bodies are being retrieved from under the rubble,” it said, adding people were critically injured.

There were no planes overhead when the missile hit, according to residents, and the extent of the destruction indicated a surface-to-surface missile was likely used, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

At least 40 people were killed across Syrian today, including five in a car bomb attack in Damascus province, the Observatory said.

In Geneva, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos described the situation as “devastating” as she announced that four million people inside Syrian needed aid.

“We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes,” said Amos.

(This article was published on February 20, 2013)
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