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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Mohammed Abbas
AMMAN (Reuters) - Multiple bomb explosions on Wednesday hit a hilltop area in Damascus populated by members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, marking escalation of sectarian attacks in a conflict that has deepened religious Middle East divides.
The attack occurred a day after deadly tit-for-tat attacks in segregated neighbourhoods of the capital, deepening the divide between the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam backed by Iran that has ruled Syria since the 1960s, and Sunnis leading the 19-month revolt against the Assad family rule.
The uprising against 42 years of autocratic rule by Assad and his late father has claimed more than 32,000 lives and left many parts of Syria in ruins.
It has polarised the United States and Russia and drawn in regional powers, widening the Middle East rift between Sunnis and Shi'ite Muslims.
Smoke was seen rising from the Alawite enclave, known as Mezze 86, which is situated near the presidential palace, from what appeared to be heavy-calibre mortar bombs, several residents of Damascus said by phone.
"Ambulances are heading to the area and the shabbiha (pro-Assad militiamen) are firing automatic rifles madly in the air," said a housewife who did not want to be further identified.
Syrian state television said the attack was carried out by mortar bombs, causing casualties, but gave no further details.
A car bomb exploded on Tuesday near a mosque in al-Qadam, a southern working-class Sunni neighbourhood of the capital, killing and wounding dozens, opposition activists said.
Al-Qadam, from where rebels operate, has been the target of heavy Syrian army artillery barrages in the last several weeks. Syrian warplanes have also hit the area.
Air strikes and artillery barrages unleashed by the Syrian military in the last few weeks have wrecked whole districts of the capital, as well as parts of towns and cities elsewhere.
Yet, for all their firepower, Assad's forces seem no closer to crushing their lightly armed opponents, who in turn have so far proved unable to topple the Syrian leader.
Earlier, in Hai al-Wuroud, an Alawite neighbourhood on a hill on the northwest edge of the city, a bombing killed at least 10 people, according to state media.
Bomb attacks along sectarian lines have escalated lately in the 19-month-old uprising against Assad. Last month several bombs exploded during the Muslim Eid holiday near mosques in Sunni districts and the Damascus suburbs, killing and injuring dozens of people, activists said.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group, said Assad's forces killed 154 people across Syria on Tuesday, mostly civilians in aerial and ground bombardment on Damascus and its suburbs, and the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has suggested offering Assad immunity from prosecution as a way of persuading him to leave power, said on Wednesday that Assad would still have to face justice.
The U.N. human rights office has said Syrian officials suspected of committing or ordering crimes against humanity should face prosecution at the International Criminal Court. U.N. investigators have been gathering evidence of atrocities committed by rebels as well as by Assad loyalists.
"I would like to see President Assad face full international justice for the appalling crimes he has meted out on his people," Cameron said on a visit to Zaatari, a camp housing about 30,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
"I am standing with the Syrian border just behind me and every night 500 refugees are fleeing the most appalling persecution and bloodshed to come to safety and frankly what we have done so far is not working," he added.
Cameron said Britain wanted Assad to leave power and see a peaceful political transition and a safe country for the future.
"The history of the country behind me, Syria, is being written in the blood of its own people," he added.
Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that Syria, where some 32,000 people have died in the upheaval, could end up a collapsed state like Somalia, prey to warlords and militias.
The United Nations has put Syria's government on a "list of shame" of countries that abuse children, saying Assad loyalists have killed, maimed, tortured and detained children as young as nine. Leila Zerrougui, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told Reuters on Tuesday the body was also investigating the opposition.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
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