Shells hit Damascus near hotel housing chemical inspectors

Two mortar shells hit Syria's capital Saturday near a hotel where international chemical inspectors and United Nations staff are staying, state media and a hotel guest said.

An 8-year-old was killed and 11 people were hurt in the blasts in the upscale Abu Roumaneh area of Damascus, the SANA news agency said. One shell fell near a school and the other on a roof, damaging several shops and cars.

The blasts struck some 300 meters (1,000 feet) away from the Four Seasons Hotel where the chemical inspectors and U.N. staff are staying. A UN employee staying there said it did not appear that the hotel was affected by the twin explosions. The hotel remained open after the blasts, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
He said he heard the first explosion at about 11:15 a.m., followed by a second. Thick smoke rose from the area and ambulance sirens sounded shortly afterward.

Syrian rebels routinely fire mortar shells from the outskirts of Damascus at city neighborhoods controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Last week, a similar attack reportedly killed eight people.

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and UN staff have been in Syria for the past two weeks to destroy the country's chemical weapons stockpile. The watchdog agency working to eliminate chemical weapons around the world won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a powerful endorsement of its Syria mission.

The OPCW inspectors have so far visited three sites linked to Syria's chemical weapons program, though the agency has not provided details. On Saturday, before the mortar attack, a convoy of U.N. cars left the Four Seasons, but its destination was not known.

The inspectors' mission in Syria is unprecedented because of a tight timetable — they are to get the job done by mid-2014 — and because they are operating in the midst of a civil war.

They are to inspect more than 20 sites, some close to front lines crisscrossing the country.

Earlier this week, Syrian warplanes twice bombed the rebel-held town of Safira, just a few kilometers (miles) from a large military complex believed to house an underground chemical weapons production facility.

The Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad that quickly escalated into civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed since then and millions of Syrians have been displaced.
 

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