BEIRUT — A Syrian government airstrike on a heavily contested neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo killed at least five people Saturday, while several mortar rounds slammed into a residential district in Damascus, leaving at least one person dead, activists and state media said.
Aleppo and Damascus — Syria’s two largest cities — are key fronts in civil war between President Bashar Assad and the rebels trying to overthrow his regime.
Opposition fighters have managed to seize control of several neighborhoods in Aleppo since storming the city last summer, while the regime has largely kept the rebels at bay so far in Damascus, although opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital and look increasingly capable of threatening the heart of the city — and Assad’s power.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air raid Saturday hit Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, which rebels seized parts of last weekend after days of heavy fighting with regime troops.
Both sides are eager to control the strategic district, which is predominantly inhabited by minority Kurds. The neighborhood is located on a hill on the northern edge of Aleppo and overlooks much of the city, giving those who control it the ability to pound districts held by the opposing side with mortars and artillery.
The rebels control large swaths of northern Syria, and captured their first provincial capital — the city of Raqqa — last month. They have also been making gains in recent weeks in the south, seizing military bases and towns in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 100 miles from the capital.
In Damascus, mortar rounds hit the residential district of Kafar Souseh on the city’s western outskirts, killing one person and wounding at least 13, the state-run SANA news agency said. The attacks also caused material damage to stores in the district and set several parked vehicles on fire, SANA said.
The Observatory said mortar rounds also struck the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
It was not immediately clear who fired the shells, but mortar rounds have fallen with increasingly regularity in the center of the capital, puncturing the aura of normalcy that the regime has tried to cultivate in the city.
The Observatory also reported clashes between government troops and rebels Saturday in the town of Otaybah east of Damascus.
Also Saturday, the newly elected prime minister of the Western-backed opposition umbrella group, Ghassan Hitto, started reviewing candidates for a planned rebel interim government that will consist of 11 ministries and will be based inside Syria, according to a statement by the Syrian National Coalition.
It said Hitto, who has lived in the United States for many years, aims to “attract the qualified talent and competencies required to manage the upcoming phase of the revolution.”
The candidates for ministerial and deputy positions must be Syrian citizens older than 35 years of age, the statement said. It added that high-ranking regime officials or “those who have committed crimes against the Syrian people or have unlawfully seized Syrian property or wealth” will be excluded from consideration.
“The nominee must be an advocate or supporter of the Syrian revolution,” the statement said.
The Western-backed opposition alliance has been marred by severe divisions in its ranks since its formation late last year in Qatar, and its leaders are mostly seen as disconnected from the myriad rebel forces fighting inside Syria.