AMMAN - Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces pounded Sunni
Muslim rebels in the city of Homs with artillery and from the air on Sunday, the
second day of their offensive
in central Syria, activists said.
rebels defending the old center of Homs and five adjacent Sunni districts had
largely repelled a ground attack on Saturday by Assad's forces, backed by
guerrillas from the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, but reported clashes and
deaths within the city on Sunday.
Mohammad Mroueh, a member of the
opposition "Homs Crisis Cell" said at least 25 loyalist troops including four
Hezbollah fighters had been killed in Homs in the previous 24 hours. Such
reports are difficult to verify in Syria, where independent media cannot usually
The offensive follows steady military gains by Assad's
forces, backed by Hezbollah, in villages in Homs province and towns close to the
Opposition sources and diplomats said the loyalist
advance had tightened the siege of Homs and secured a main road link to
Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon and to army bases in Alawite-held territory
near the Syrian coast, the main entry point for Russian arms that have given
Assad an advantage in firepower.
At least 100,000 people have been killed
since the Syrian revolt against four decades of rule by Assad and his late
father erupted in March 2011, making the uprising the bloodiest of the Arab
Spring revolutions against entrenched autocrats.
The Syrian conflict is
increasingly pitting Assad's Alawite minority, backed by Shi'ite Iran and its
Hezbollah ally, against mainly Sunni rebel brigades supported by the Gulf
states, Egypt, Turkey and others.
Sunni Jihadists, including al-Qaida
fighters from Iraq, have also entered the fray.Alarm
advances have alarmed international supporters of the rebels, leading the United
States to announce it will step up military support. Saudi Arabia has
accelerated deliveries of sophisticated weaponry, Gulf sources
Opposition activists said a woman and child had been killed in a
strike by government aircraft on the old city of Homs, home to hundreds of
Video footage taken by the activists showed the bodies being
carried in blankets and a man holding a wounded child with a gash in his
Rebel fighters fought loyalist forces backed by tanks in the old
covered market, which links the old city with Khalidiya, a district inhabited by
members of tribes who have been at the forefront of the armed
"After failing to make any significant advances yesterday,
the regime is trying to sever the link between Khalidiya and the old city," Abu
Bilal, one of the activists, said from Homs.
"We are seeing a sectarian
attack on Homs par excellence, The army has taken a back role. Most of the
attacking forces are comprised of Alawite militia being directed by Hezbollah."
Alawites belong to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam and have controlled Syria since
the 1960s, when members of the sect took over the army and security apparatus in
the mainly Sunni country.Urban warfare
Homs is a majority Sunni city.
But a large number of Alawites have moved there in recent decades, drawn by army
and security jobs.
Lebanese security forces said Hezbollah appeared to be
present in the rural areas surrounding Homs.
Anwar Abu al-Waleed, an
activist, said rebel brigades were prepared to fight a long battle, unlike in
Qusair and Tel Kalakh, two towns in rural Homs near the border with Lebanon that
fell to loyalist forces in recent weeks.
"We are talking about serious
urban warfare in Homs. We are not talking about scattered buildings in an
isolated town but a large urban area that provides a lot of cover," he
State media said the army had "destroyed terrorist concentrations"
in several districts of Homs and made "big progress" in
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad must halt
his "brutal assault" on Homs and allow full humanitarian aid access to the
country. Gulf countries, which back the rebels, urged Lebanon to stop outside
parties interfering in the conflict, a reference to the Iranian-backed
The Syrian conflict has aggravated neighbouring Lebanon's own
complex sectarian rivalry, triggering fighting between Alawite pro-Assad and
Sunni anti-Assad militia in the northern city of Tripoli that has killed
Syria's official state news agency said a helicopter carrying
Ministry of Education employees heading to a northern area to supervise school
exams had been shot down. The seven employees and the helicopter's crew were
killed, it said.
The agency said the plane was brought down as "part of
the scheme of the armed terrorist gangs to halt normal life".
activists said the helicopter had been carrying supplies to two Shi'ite villages
north of the city of Aleppo where Hezbollah fighters had been deployed.