DAMASCUS // UN officials yesterday said Syria is facing "systematic destruction" and that hundreds of thousands of children in the central province of Homs need urgent humanitarian aid.
The UN's latest warning came amid heavy fighting around the southern neighbourhoods of Syria's capital, which has seen entrances to the city effectively blocked for days by military checkpoints and firefights near main roads.
With tensions still simmering between Tel Aviv, Damascus and Beirut, Israeli warplanes flew over southern Lebanon again yesterday, two days after a suspected Israeli air strike on a target just across the border in Syria.
Adding to fears about a spillover of the war into Lebanon, at least three people were killed when gunmen attacked the Lebanese army in the Bekka valley, near the border with Syria.
President Bashar Al Assad's government sent formal letters of protest over Wednesday's air srike to the UN Security Council yesterday, according to Sana, the official Syrian news agency.
The letters claimed Israel had coordinated the attack with the Nusra Front, with militants from the Islamist group striking radar positions on the ground and allowing the Israeli jets to bypass what is widely thought to be a formidable, Russian built air-defence system.
As the conflict in Syria has developed, the Nusra Front has emerged as one of the most effective rebel fighting forces. Classified as a terrorist organisation by both Damascus and Washington, it has won backers among other rebels and segments of the civilian population for its discipline and honesty.
Citing the government's letters to the UN, Sana denied claims that the air strike hit a military convoy carrying advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah. The target was a scientific research centre, it said, offering no further details.
Syria has said it retains the right to retaliate over the attack and opposition activists speculated that yesterday's suicide bombing at the US embassy in Ankara was the work of regime security agents.
In Geneva, Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, said 420,000 people in Homs, half of them children, needed "life-saving" help.
"Children are the worst affected," said Unicef emergency specialist Mark Choonoo, who took part in a month long mission to the area.
"Most children I saw were showing signs of distress. It is extremely important that we reach as many of these children as possible with the support they need to cope with their traumatic experiences," he said.
Unicef said 700,000 people across Homs province were severely affected by the conflict, with 635,000 displaced from their homes.
More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled their homes because of fighting, most of them staying inside the country and seeking shelter in safer - although still far from secure - areas, often relying on family and friends for food and shelter.
There has been widespread destruction of residential zones, many hit by artillery bombardments and air strikes carried out by regime forces. Homs is one of the most heavily shelled areas in the country.
The Syrian government blames "terrorists" for the damage.
A official of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who took part in the Homs mission said Syria was "facing systematic destruction".
"It is an appalling situation in Syria today," Yacoub El Hillo, the head of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa bureau, told reporters in Geneva.
The UNHCR said it had sent staff to the opposition-held area of Azaz, on the Syrian-Turkish border, for the first time and delivered emergency supplies to thousands of displaced people who have sought refuge there.
Aid was moved in by lorry from Latakia, a province largely under regime control, the UNHCR said. Aid organisations have struggled to cross between government and rebel-held areas.
In southern Damascus, Yarmouk, a densely populated urban district of the capital, was hit by artillery fire yesterday, as was the neighbouring area of Hajar Aswad, according to activists. Sporadic artillery and mortar fire could be heard throughout the day. Much of the population has fled.
By yesterday evening at least 57 people had been killed nationwide, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said.