BEIRUT, Lebanon — Mortar shells crashed into Umayyad Square in the center of Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Monday, killing at least one person, state media reported. It was some of the worst shelling in the heart of the city since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began two years ago.
Umayyad Square is a large open space at the center of a major downtown crossroads, less than a mile from the presidential palace. A year ago, it was the scene of a large demonstration in support of Assad.
Around the square are the state television offices, the army's general staff headquarters, university buildings, the Sheraton hotel, and the Damascus Opera House, a showpiece of the commitment to high culture that Assad liked to project and the venue for his rare public speech in January.
Some state media said as many as six were killed and dozens wounded.
The rebellious Free Syrian Army took responsibility for the attack.
Shelling in such central areas panicked residents who fear that Damascus, which has largely been spared the urban warfare that has devastated Syria's other major cities, could be next.
Syria's state news agency, Sana, said six people were killed when a mortar round struck close to the opera house. State television said one person was killed. The military struck back, shelling rebel positions from Mount Qasioun, where the presidential palace overlooks the city.
After mortar shells fell Sunday and Monday near the downtown Damascus hotel that the United Nations uses as its Syria headquarters, the world body told its 800 Syrian employees to work from home for the time being, and evacuated half of its 100 non-Syrian employees to Beirut or Cairo, according to Martin Nesirky, the spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
The new fighting came as the opposition reported that a senior rebel leader had been wounded in an explosion in the town of Mayadeen, in the province of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria where rebels have recently seized large amounts of territory. The blast hit Col. Riad al-Asaad, one of the most prominent defectors from the Syrian military and a top figure in the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group that has attempted to unify rebels under a single command.