DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces captured a historic mosque in the central city of Homs on Saturday, expelling rebel forces who had been in control of the 13th century landmark for more than a year and dealing a symbolic blow to opposition forces.
State-run news agency SANA quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops took control of the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in the heavily disputed northern neighborhood of Khaldiyeh.
Syrian TV aired a report Saturday night with footage from inside the mosque, showing heavy damage and the tomb’s dome knocked out. The footage showed debris strewn on the floor and a portion of the mosque appeared to have been burned.
The mosque, famous for its nine domes and two minarets, has been a symbol for rebels in the city that is known as “the capital of the revolution.” On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam.
After capturing the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanon border last month, government troops launched an offensive on rebel-held areas in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, late in June. They have been pushing into Khaldiyeh and other neighborhoods in the Old City that have been under opposition control since 2011.
A Homs-based activist who identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Bilal, for fear of government reprisals, said troops entered the mosque area from the east. He said regime forces now control more than 60 percent of Khaldiyeh.
“There are very fast developments in Khaldiyeh,” Abu Bilal told The Associated Press via Skype. He said he had no further details from local rebel commanders.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy fighting around the mosque, saying the government troops are backed by members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.
A journalist embedded with Syrian troops told the AP that a reporter for Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam television station was wounded near the mosque. A sniper’s bullet struck the thigh of journalist Roa al-Ali, the journalist said, asking his name not be made public as he wasn’t authorized to give information to other media outlets.
On top of its symbolic value, Homs is also a geographic lynchpin in Syria. The main highway from Damascus to the north as well as the coastal region, which is a stronghold of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, runs through Homs. Both rebels and the regime place a high strategic value on the city.
And although Assad’s forces have been on the offensive in recent months, activists say the regime wants to capture the entirety of Homs to include it in a potential future Alawite state — stretching from Homs to the coast — where Assad could make his last stand if the civil war swings against him.
Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels fighting to topple his regime are Sunnis.
Khaldiyeh had a population of about 80,000 but only some 2,000 remain there today as residents fled the violence. The heavy fighting over the past two years has destroyed wide areas and knocked down entire buildings.
Earlier Saturday, Syria’s state media said talks between the Syrian government and a United Nations delegation tasked with investigating chemical weapons allegations in the nation’s civil war have “resulted in an agreement on ways of moving forward.”
Assad’s government invited a U.N. team to visit Damascus earlier this month after requesting that the world body investigate an alleged chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, a village in the north. The Syrian regime and the rebels fighting to topple it accuse each other of using chemical agents in the March 19 incident, which killed 31 people.
Assad’s government refused to have a possible inquiry include other alleged chemical attack sites in Homs, Damascus and elsewhere.
A joint statement by the foreign ministry and the U.N. that appeared Saturday on SANA’s website said the meetings were “comprehensive and fruitful and resulted in an agreement on ways of moving forward.”
It did not elaborate. The U.N. team couldn’t be reached for comment.
Saturday’s announcement on the possible U.N. probe agreement on Khan al-Assal coincided with government allegations that the rebels committed “a massacre” in the village, killing 123 “civilians and military personnel,” according to a SANA report. SANA said others are still missing.
The report said “terrorists” were behind the recent killings in Khan al-Assal, a term the government uses for rebels. The Observatory previously said at least 150 government soldiers were killed on Monday and Tuesday there, some after they had surrendered.
A statement released by al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — or the Nusra Front — said 150 soldiers, pro-government gunmen and Shiite militiamen were killed in Khan al-Assal. The statement said fighters captured 63 soldiers alive but 55 of them fled. Nusra Front said its members killed 15 of them before 40 surrendered. The statement did not say if the 40 were still alive.
The conflicting claims could not be independently reconciled.
In Aleppo, a rocket fired by government forces into a rebel-held district killed at least 29 including 19 under the age of 18 and four women, the Observatory said Saturday. The attack happened Friday during government shelling in the Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 largely as peaceful protests against Assad’s rule. It escalated into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.N.’s recent estimate.
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report. Mroue reported from Beirut.