DAMASCUS, Syria – Families in a central neighborhood of the Syrian capital wept quietly Tuesday as they retrieved the bodies of four children and their bus driver killed in a mortar attack on their school in a predominantly Christian area a day earlier.
The strike was the latest rebel reprisal to hit Damascus as government troops press ahead with a crushing weekslong advance into opposition-held suburbs, often relying on indiscriminant artillery fire themselves. Such mortar attacks by rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad have been on the rise.
"Those children were angels," said Marwan Qabalan, a family friend picking up the body of nine-year-old Vaniciya Mekho from the morgue. He said the girl's parents couldn't bear to see her, still dressed in a school uniform and covered with blood.
Often-random rebel mortar fire has hit shops, churches, homes and embassies in the capital this year, killing dozens of civilians. But Monday's shelling of Risaleh school in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood shocked residents in particular because the casualties were children.
A fifth pupil died early Tuesday, raising the number of children killed to five. Four other children and two supervisors were also wounded in the strike, and another mortar attack the same day on nearby John of Damascus school wounded 11.
Also Tuesday, Kurds announced a transitional autonomous administration to run day-to-day affairs in regions they dominate in Syria's northeast. Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said the announcement was made in the city of Qamishli.
Overstretched from fighting rebels across most of the country, Syrian troops withdrew from Kurdish areas last year, leaving a security void. Since then, Kurdish militiamen led by the PYD, seen by mainstream rebels and some other Kurdish groups as being pro-government, have been fighting to purge their areas from Islamic extremists and al-Qaida affiliated militants.
The Kurdish move could be a first step toward setting up an autonomous region similar to one they administer in northern Iraq. It was not immediately clear however if other groups supported the announcement by the PYD and a few other small groups.
In Damascus, the morgue visit was organized for journalists by Syrian officials who otherwise typically restrict reporters' access to events. All victims were Christians.
Associated Press TV footage showed somber pallbearers placing a small white coffin with a gold cross on the lid into the back of a hearse. Three men carried out another coffin, as woman dressed in black cried out: "What a waste, what a shame!" A hospital medic draped a white robe over six-year-old Majd Shahadeh before he was placed in a coffin.
"I am proud because I am the mother of a martyr and I am ready even to sacrifice my other two sons for Syria," said the bus driver's tearful mother, Samira Abu Sukkeh.
UNICEF called the shelling "barbaric," saying in a statement that "all those with influence in Syria have a moral obligation to respect the sanctity of children's lives and ensure that schools remain a place of safe refuge."
The attack triggered outrage among residents of the capital who have largely become accustomed to violence and mortar fire in recent months, with many parents to terrified to let their children return to school. Education official Rami Shahin said only 100 of some 750 pupils at John of Damascus attended classes Tuesday.
Elsewhere in Damascus, mortar shells continued to draw blood, with state media saying a strike near the office of a pro-Assad Palestinian group wounded 10. The shells can be easily lobbed into the city from footholds on its outskirts.
Despite the attacks, rebel fighters say infighting and waning weapon supplies have weakened them in recent weeks. The government has also besieged many of their enclaves and made inroads in the northern province of Aleppo as well.
Tuesday's fighting centered around the suburb of Hejeira, one of a patchwork of sprawling neighborhoods and towns just south of Damascus that have been opposition strongholds for the past year. In recent weeks, government forces have taken control of four nearby strongholds, most recently the nearby town of Sabina.
Assad's efforts there were bolstered by Shiite fighters from Iraq and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground. A spokeswoman for a Damascus-based Syrian rebel council corroborated the claim, speaking on condition of anonymity however for fear of reprisals.
An Aleppo-based anti-government activist said rebels were on high alert in the northern city on Tuesday, fearing government troops backed by various Assad allies would soon try to storm their eastern strongholds. The activist, who uses the pseudonym Abu Raed in order to avoid identification by the government, said rebel fighters had been ordered to present themselves for duty or be punished.
"They want to halt the army's advance," he said. "The regime is coming."
Western-backed rebel groups have not been sent weapons or ammunition for at least a month, Abu Raed added, saying the cutback was part of a regional tactic to force Syria's opposition to agree to participate in an international peace conference to end to the three-year conflict.
The fractured opposition however has so far demurred from saying outright it would attend the proposed talks in Geneva – welcoming the conference but with preconditions unlikely to be met.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed reporting.