DAMASCUS: The United Nations said yesterday that it was alarmed at the violent nature of a demonstration in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan that killed one person and wounded dozens.
Saturday’s deadly protest in the sprawling Zaatari camp reverberated around the region as international aid agencies and host governments struggle to deal with millions of Syrians who have fled the three-year-old conflict and sought shelter in neighbouring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The UN refugee agency said a “heated demonstration” in Zaatari became violent when refugees started throwing rocks at a police post inside the camp. The protest was over the detention of a refugee family and a driver who tried to smuggle them out, the UNHCR said.
Police fired tear gas and there were reports of live ammunition being used. Three refugees were sent to hospital with gunshot wounds and one died, the UNHCR said. The statement said 28 policemen were wounded, and nine tents and five mobile homes were burned.
“Tremendous efforts have been made over the past months to create an atmosphere of civility in the camp,” the UNHCR said, appealing to the Syrian refugees to respect Jordanian law. Thousands of refugees fled the east side of the camp where the riots broke out, the statement said.
Jordan is home to 588,979 registered Syrian refugees, and the numbers grow daily. Most are staying in two organised encampments near the northern border with Syria. With a population exceeding 120,000, Zaatari is the biggest camp.
The refugees are under direct care of the United Nations and the Jordanian government. There are an undetermined number of unregistered refugees in Jordan, including many who have moved into the country’s towns and cities.
Meanwhile in Syria, mortar shells exploded near the Damascus opera house, killing two people, state media said, as rebels intensified their shelling of the Syrian capital to relieve pressure on an opposition neighbourhood that government forces have been trying to seize.
The opera house, officially called the Assad House for Culture and Arts, is located near a cluster of government and security buildings and last year hosted a defiant speech by the President Bashar Al Assad in which he vowed to continue fighting rebels seeking his overthrow.
Rebels holed up in the city’s rural periphery have focused their efforts on hitting the area, said an activist who uses the name Muaz Al Shami. The Syrian state media outlet Sana said other mortar shells had hit nearby areas yesterday. On Saturday, mortar fire injured 22 people in the city.
Syrian rebels often fire mortar shells into Damascus from strongholds in outlying communities, but the fire has intensified this week as pro-Assad forces advance on the rural Ghouta suburb to the capital’s east, Shami said.
“They rebels are trying to shell security strongholds in Damascus. It’s an attempt to reduce pressure on the neighbourhood,” he said.
Pro-Assad forces began fighting hard to seize Ghouta – a long-held opposition area – over the past five days, said Shami. As he spoke, explosions could be heard in the background. The area has been blockaded for six months.
The assault on Ghouta is part of a push by Assad forces to solidify their hold on Damascus by dislodging rebels from the towns and neighbourhoods on the city’s fringes. The government has used twin tactics to achieve its aims: Blockading rebellious areas to pressure them into submission and unleashing artillery and air strikes on districts that refuse to bend.
Last week government forces seized the outskirts of the town of Mleiha, near the Ghouta area. That came after pro-Assad forces severed important rebel supply lines from the eastern Lebanese border into the Damascus periphery. Shami said rebels still had “secret lines” that allowed in food and weapons, and that they were making some projectiles in rudimentary workshops within the neighbourhood.
Also, at least 29 rebels died in a blast in the central Syrian city of Homs as they primed a car bomb for an attack, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. “The death toll is likely to rise because there are dozens of people missing and body parts in the area of the blast,” the Britain-based group said.
One activist network, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, said the blast was the result of a rocket landing on an ammunition deport in the area. The claim could not be independently confirmed. The blast took place on the outskirts of Homs, which is under rebel control.
The Observatory said five civilians, including three children, were killed in regime air strikes on the town of Douma northeast of Damascus. And additional air raids as well as fierce fighting was reported in Mleiha, southwest of the capital in Damascus province.
In northern Aleppo province, the Observatory said two people, including a child, were killed in raids using explosive-packed barrels bombs, an army tactic that has caused dozens of deaths.