BEIRUT — A Syrian missile strike leveled a block of buildings in an impoverished district of Aleppo on Tuesday, killing at least 33 people, almost half of them children, antiregime activists said.
Many were trapped under the rubble of destroyed houses and piles of concrete and the death toll could still rise further if more bodies are uncovered.
The apparent ground-to-ground missile attack struck a quiet area that has been held by antiregime fighters for months, a reminder of how difficult it is for the opposition to defend territory in the face of far superior weaponry.
In the capital, Damascus, two mortars exploded near one of President Bashar Assad’s palaces, state news agency SANA said. It dealt a symbolic blow to the embattled leader, who has tried to maintain an image as the head of a functioning state even as rebels edge closer to the heart of his seat of power.
No casualties were reported and it was unclear whether Assad was in the palace. He has two others in the city.
The attack was the first confirmed strike close to a presidential palace and another sign that the civil war is seeping into areas once considered safe.
“This is a clear message to the regime that nowhere is safe from now on,” said Khaled al-Shami, an activist in Damascus reached via Skype. “The fact that they had to announce it means they can no longer hide what is happening in Damascus.”
The news service, SANA, said “terrorists” fired the rounds that struck near the southern wall of the Tishreen palace in the capital’s northwestern Muhajireen district. The government refers to antigovernment fighters as “terrorists.”
Assad often uses the Tishrin palace to receive dignitaries and as a guest house for foreign officials during their visits.
The capital has largely been spared the violence that has left other cities in ruins. For weeks, however, rebels who have established footholds in the suburbs have been pushing closer to the heart of Damascus from the eastern and southern outskirts, clashing with government forces.
Rebels have claimed to fire rockets at presidential palaces in Damascus before, but this strike was the first confirmed by the government.
In the northern city of Aleppo, antiregime activists said a missile strike flattened a stretch of buildings and killed at least 33 people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they included 14 children and five women.
Amateur videos posted online showed scores of men combing through the rubble of destroyed buildings in the poor Jabal Badro neighborhood to find those trapped beneath it.
“Allahu Akbar,” or God is great, they shout as a group of men lift up a body wrapped in a pink blanket.
One man swung a sledgehammer to break through concrete while a bulldozer hauled off rubble. In another video, a man covered in gray dust struggled under a pile of concrete.
The videos appeared authentic and corresponded with other Associated Press reporting.
The Jabal Badro district has been under rebel control for months and had been largely quiet until Tuesday’s attack.
The strike was the latest salvo in a fierce and bloody 7-month battle for Syria’s largest city and economic center, a key prize in the civil war.