Mortar round hits Vatican embassy in Damascus

Tuesday - 11/5/2013, 3:25pm EST

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a rocket soars through the air in Daraya on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP Video)

ALBERT AJI
Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- A mortar round slammed into a building housing the Vatican's embassy in the Syrian capital Tuesday, but no injuries were reported, witnesses and a spokesman said.

Other foreign diplomatic missions have been struck in the nearly 3-year-old civil war pitting President Bashar Assad's government against rebels fighting to oust him. But it was unclear if the Vatican's mission was the target on Tuesday. Opposition fighters frequently fire mortar shells into the capital to undermine the government's efforts to maintain a semblance of normalcy in its stronghold.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the blast, which occurred near the upscale Abu Roummaneh district and damaged the roof. Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters that the pre-dawn attack caused no casualties and the pope had been informed about it.

"Given the hour, there was only material damages, not to people," Lombardi said.

The conflict has cleaved Syria along sectarian lines. Rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni, while Christians and other minorities have remained neutral, or supported the Assad government, fearing for their fate should Islamic hard-liners seize the country. Each warring party has committed atrocities against other sects.

On Tuesday, a Syrian watchdog group estimated that the number of civilians killed during fighting last month in a Christian town north of Damascus was 45. That included six family members shot to death and thrown in a well, who were found by residents.

Rebels from three extremist Muslim groups tried to seize the town of Sadad in late October, triggering days of deadly clashes with Assad's forces which ultimately repelled them.

The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north from Damascus, not because it is overwhelmingly Christian. But extremists among the rebels are hostile to Syria's many minorities, including Christians, and Syria's state media reported that rebels vandalized the town's Saint Theodore Church during the fighting.

Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Tuesday it was not clear how many of the 45 killed were deliberately targeted.

He said the six family members were found a "few days ago" and included an elderly man, his wife, their daughter, her two teenage children and the daughter's mother-in-law.

Al-Qaida rebels have also cracked down on other Sunni Muslims for not following their harsh, militant interpretation of Islam. On Tuesday, Abdurrahman said rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant smashed a statue on a clock tower in the northeast city of Raqqa. It was not clear who the statue was of. Some ultraconservative Muslims believe all statues are a form of idolatry.

Despite the violence, the Syrian currency improved, the pro-government daily al-Watan reported Tuesday. It said that after Monday trading, 125 Syrian pounds would purchase a U.S. dollar on the black market, while the official price was 138 pounds to the dollar.

The Syrian pound has been steadily improving after reaching a record low of more than 300 pounds to the dollar in the summer, when the U.S. threatened to strike the country following a chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds.

The currency has improved on the back of optimism among Syrian officials, with forces securing a string of victories against rebels.

The market was closed Tuesday because of the Islamic new year and exchange shops and banks were closed.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, and Daniela Petroff at Vatican City contributed to this report.


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