Syrian rebels attack presidential palace in Damascus

This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows people searching through the debris of destroyed buildings in the aftermath of a strike by Syrian government forces, in the neighborhood of Jabal Bedro, Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013. Aleppo, which was Syria's largest city before refugees fled en masse, has been the scene of intense fighting, and therefore destruction, as both sides know control of the city is the key to winning the war. AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC

DAMASCUS, Syria Two mortars exploded near one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's palaces in Damascus on Tuesday but caused only material damage, Syria's state news service said.

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 and reaching closer to the heart of Assad's seat of power in the capital.

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 rebels to anti-government fighters as "terrorists."

No casualties were reported and it was unclear whether Assad was in the palace. He has two others in the city.

Assad often uses the Tishrin palace to receive dignitaries and as a guest house for foreign officials during their visits to Syria.

His two other palaces are the People's Palace on Qasioun mountain overlooking the capital and Rawda palace in the central neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh.

For security reasons, Assad movements are shrouded in secrecy and it is unclear how much time he spends in any of the palaces. His public appearances have grown increasingly infrequent as the civil war has spread.

The Syrian capital has largely been spared the violence that has left other Syrian cities in ruins. For weeks, however, rebels who have established footholds in the suburbs have been pushing closer to the heart of the city from the eastern and southern outskirts, clashing with government forces.

Rebels have claimed to fire rockets at the presidential palaces before, but Tuesday's strike was the first confirmed by the government.

Rebels have slowly expanded their control over parts of Aleppo since first storming it last summer. The city is now divided between rebel- and regime-controlled zones.

Rebel forces have been trying for weeks to capture the city's international airport and two military airbases nearby, while the government is bringing in reinforcements from areas it still controls further south and regularly bombing rebel areas from the air.

The Britain-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 19 people were confirmed dead in the attack late Monday night, including six children and three women.

The activist Aleppo Media Center said more than 40 were killed, though it did not provide names or videos of the dead. There was no way to reconcile the differing tolls.

Both groups said the strike appeared to be from a ground-to-ground missile. The Syrian government did not comment.

International diplomacy has failed to stop the violence. The U.S. and other Arab and European countries have called on Assad to stand down, while Russia, China and Iran continue to back him. Russia, Syria's largest arms supplies for decades, has said it will continue to fulfill its arms contracts with Assad's regime.

Russia on Tuesday said it had sent two jets carrying humanitarian aid to Syria and are inviting Russians who want to leave the country to take the flights back.

The Emergency Situations Ministry on Tuesday said the two planes had already left Moscow for northwestern port of Latakia, carrying 40 tons of aid, including portable power generators, blankets, canned food and sugar. It says Russians are welcome to fly back on the planes.

In January, Russia flew 77 of its citizens out of Syria on two flights from Beirut. The foreign ministry says it is not planning a large-scale evacuation.

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