BEIRUT (AP) -- The death toll from an insurgent mortar assault on a Damascus market has risen to 44, state media said Wednesday, making it one of the deadliest attacks in the capital since the start of Syria's seven-year civil war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll from Tuesday's attack at 43, including 11 pro-government fighters. Videos of the aftermath posted online showed scenes of chaos, with people screaming and bodies and mannequins strewn across the ground.
The government blamed the attack on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, where Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes have been waging a major offensive over the past month that has killed hundreds of people.
Hospital director Mohammed Haitham al-Husseini told Al-Ikhbariya TV that 35 others were wounded in the mortar attack, with six in intensive care. He said most of the casualties were women and children.
Witnesses told state-run TV that the mortar fell during rush hour in the popular market on the eve of Mother's Day, celebrated in the Middle East with the start of spring. A child said he was out shopping with his family for Mother's Day when they heard a huge explosion. "Everyone started running, and people were going into narrow streets to give first aid to others," the child said.
A woman speaking in the hospital said her niece, who was wounded by shrapnel, lost her four-year old son. "We just saw him in the morgue," the woman told Al-Ikhbariya. The TV network did not identify the woman or the child.
Government forces meanwhile continued to pound opposition-held areas with shelling and airstrikes. The first-responders group known as the White Helmets said 56 civilians were killed Tuesday in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta, updating an earlier toll. Videos from the White Helmets showed rescue workers surrounded by fires and ongoing shelling struggling to retrieve survivors from a building in Douma.
The assault on eastern Ghouta has displaced 45,000 people, the United Nations said Tuesday. Before the latest offensive, it was estimated that 400,000 people were trapped in the besieged region. The rebels first seized the area in 2012,
Government forces have made major gains in recent days, leaving just a small fraction of eastern Ghouta under rebel control. President Bashar Assad paid a rare visit to troops on the front lines over the weekend.
Syrian and Russian forces have opened a third corridor in eastern Ghouta to allow civilians to leave the town of Harasta, which is home to an estimated 20,000 people. Russia's Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin said 300 civilians and 15 militants have exited through the corridor in the past 24 hours. He said the number of civilians fleeing rebel-held areas has been declining after tens of thousands left in recent days.
As in other besieged parts of Syria, government forces have pressed the rebels to enter into local cease-fire agreements under which the militants and their families would relocate to other parts of the country. The Syrian opposition has criticized such agreements, saying they reward the government's siege tactics and legitimize the forced displacement of civilians from their homes.
The Observatory said the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, which controls Harasta, has reached a cease-fire agreement with the government that will come into effect later Wednesday if there are no violations. Monther Fares, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham in eastern Ghouta, said the negotiations are still underway.