POSTED: 3:00 a.m. HST, Jul 6, 2013
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops have advanced into rebel-held areas of the city of Homs, occupying buildings after pummeling the area with artillery that drove out opposition fighters, an activist said Saturday.
The push into Khaldiyeh district was the first significant gain for troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who have been waging an eight-day campaign to seize parts of the central Syrian city in rebel hands for over a year.
Tariq Badrakhan, an activist based in the neighborhood, said government troops used rockets, mortars and cannon fire to flush out the area's "first line of defenses" on Friday evening. The offensive continued Saturday morning, he said via Skype, as explosions were heard in the background.
"We feel like they are shaking the sky," Badrakhan said.
Another activist said eight rebels were killed in the fighting. He requested anonymity because rebels have accused him in the past of damaging their morale by reporting their casualties.
Syria has been embroiled in a civil war since a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime two years ago turned into armed revolt after a violent government crackdown.
Government forces, sometimes bolstered by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have launched a major countrywide offensive to reclaim territory lost to rebels, who operate in chaotic groups with ideologies ranging from secular to hardline Islamic extremists.
Hardline Sunni Muslims from other countries have also joined the fighting, which has left more than 93,000 people dead.
In other violence Saturday, government troops battled rebels in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, as the regime tries to push opposition forces further away from the capital, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
State-run television said government forces seized control of the area, adding that the move had cut off rebel weapons supplies and movement between the neighborhoods of Jobar, Qaboun, Zamalka and Harasta.
Homs location between Damascus and the Syrian coast, a stronghold for the Assad regime, makes it a strategic prize.
Activist Badrakhan said fighters in the Khaldiyeh district had held out until Friday evening, when they were hit with explosions that killed some and caused others to flee.
He provided The Associated Press with three videos showing a series of fighters lying on flimsy mattresses in what was described as a makeshift clinic in Khaldiyeh. The faces and hands of four men appeared blackened with burns.
Clashes and shelling continued Saturday in neighborhoods around Homs' Old City, said another Homs-based activist who gave his name only as Nedal for fear of government reprisals.
He said shelling had intensified since Friday morning and Syrian military intelligence forces were arresting people suspected of being loyal to the rebels.
"They are taken and it's a death sentence," he said. "They disappear."
Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid