At least seven people were killed by rocket attacks across central Damascus on Sunday, in one of the worst barrages the largely peaceful Syrian capital has seen in years that has prompted panic among residents.
Witnesses and state media reported that five civilians and two soldiers were killed and scores more injured when the Islam Army, a hardline rebel group based in the Damascus suburbs, fired at least 50 and as many as 150 rockets toward the city.
Missiles struck the neighborhoods of Malki, where the presidential palace is located, Abou Roumaneh, Mezzeh, Salhiyah and Baramkeh, activists said. The trajectory of the rockets indicated they were fired from the suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where the Islam Army is strongest, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Residents in central Damascus who wished to remain nameless told Al Jazeera that loud noises shook the capital on Sunday afternoon — a relatively rare occurrence in the seat of the Assad government.
A spokesman for the Islam Army — a hardline rebel faction that has ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan but opposes the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaeda — confirmed to Al Jazeera that it was responsible for the rocket fire, adding that a press conference was scheduled for later on Monday.
The group’s leader, Zahran Aloush, had issued a warning over social media on Friday that he would “rain hundreds of missiles down on Damascus daily” in retaliation for the regime’s “barbaric” airstrikes on the Damascus suburbs. On Friday, activists said regime planes had killed 56 people in Eastern Ghouta, including children.
Aloush said in a tweet Friday that he was imposing a “curfew” for the safety of civilians during the rocket attacks and subsequently lifted the curfew in a tweet on Sunday evening.
A source in Damascus said the warning triggered long lines at bakeries and supermarkets, as residents stocked up on food supplies for the weekend. He said that the Islam Army often targets the city, but that a concerted campaign like Sunday’s marked an escalation, which he feared would portend “a new wave” in the violence.
“We’re still afraid of going out,” he said after the shelling subsided.
Youmiyat Qazifat Hawen, a group that monitors shelling in Damascus, contested Aloush’s claim that the shelling was meant to target regime headquarters and military facilities in the city. On its Facebook page, the group called the rocket fire “random” and posted photos of destroyed vehicles, cafés with broken windows and a child covered in blood, allegedly injured by a rocket attack.
State media reported that rockets had deliberately targeted mosques, churches and schools. Aloush disputed that accusation, saying, “we warn people in Damascus about the regime’s tricks and crimes.”
Meanwhile, government planes continued to shell the rebel-held suburbs on Monday, with five killed in clashes and government airstrikes in Eastern Ghouta and another four dead in Madaya, where the Syrian Air Force dropped barrel bombs, the Syrian Observatory reported.