Syrian army, backed by jets, launches assault on Homs

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a major offensive yesterday against rebels in Homs, a centre of the two-year-old uprising, in their latest drive to secure an axis connecting Damascus to the Mediterranean.

Activists said jets and mortars had pounded rebel-held areas of the city that have been under siege by Assad’s troops for a year, and soldiers fought battles with rebel fighters in several districts.

“Government forces are trying to storm (Homs) from all fronts,” said an activist using the name Abu Mohammad.

There were no immediate details of casualties but video footage uploaded by activists showed heavy explosions and white clouds of smoke rising from what they said were rebel districts. Loud, concentrated rounds of gunfire could also be heard.

One clip showed thick black smoke rising from a mosque identified as the 13th-century Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque, on the edge of the Khalidiyah neighbourhood.

Syrian state media said the army was “achieving great progress” in Khalidiyah but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group, said there were reports that rebels had destroyed an army tank as troops tried to penetrate the Old City in the centre of Homs.

The attack on Homs follows steady military gains by Assad’s forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, in villages in Homs province and towns close to the Lebanese border.

Three weeks ago Hezbollah spearheaded Assad’s recapture of the border town of Qusair, a former rebel bridgehead for smuggling in guns and fighters. Last week the rebels lost another border town, Tel Kalakh.

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