BEIRUT A mortar slammed into a ninth-grade classroom in the Damascus suburbs Tuesday, killing 29 students and a teacher, according to state media, as the civil war closed in on President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
The state-run news agency SANA blamed the attack on terrorists, the term the regime uses for rebels who are fighting to topple the government.
An Education Ministry official, however, said 13 students and one teacher had been killed. The discrepancy could not be immediately reconciled.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The mortar hit the al-Batiha school in al-Wafideen camp, about 15 miles northeast of Damascus, according to SANA. The camp houses 25,000 people displaced from the Golan Heights since the 1967 war between Syria and Israel.
Earlier, Syrian forces fired artillery at rebel targets in and around Damascus on Tuesday as the country’s civil war closed in on Assad’s seat of power and the international community grew increasingly alarmed about the regime’s chemical weapons stocks.
Syrian rebels have made gains in recent weeks, overrunning military bases and taking the fight to Damascus.
Since Thursday, the capital has seen some of the heaviest fighting since July, killing scores of people, forcing international flights to turn back or cancel flights and prompting the United Nations to withdraw most of its international staff.
U.S. intelligence has detected signs the regime was moving chemical weapons components around within several sites in recent days, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials. The activities involved movement within the sites, rather than the transfer of components in or out of various sites, two of the officials said.
But this type of activity had not been detected before and one of the U.S. officials said it bears further scrutiny.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Tuesday that “if anybody uses chemical weapons, I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community.”
His comments echoed a warning Monday from President Barack Obama that there would be consequences if Assad made the “tragic mistake” of deploying chemical weapons.
“Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons are a matter of great concern,” Fogh Rasmussen said as he arrived in Brussels.