DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants forged ahead with their assault on a key rebel district in the central city of Homs Sunday, activists said, as President Bashar Assad’s forces try to crush resistance in the few remaining opposition-held neighborhoods in the city known as the “capital of the revolution.”
The push on Homs is part of a broader government offensive on rebel-held areas that has seen regime troops retake some of the territory they have lost to opposition fighters in Syria’s more than 2-year-old conflict. Assad’s forces turned their sights on Homs, the country’s third-largest city, after capturing the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanon border last month.
Government troops have made headway in Homs in recent days, capturing a 13th century landmark mosque in the contested Khaldiyeh neighborhood that had been in rebel hands for more than a year. Homs holds immense symbolic and strategic importance to both sides, and the ferocity of the fighting for control of it has left much of the city in ruins.
The opposition accused the regime of pulverizing Khaldiyeh and said their victory was “hollow.”
On Sunday, Syrian state TV had live coverage from Khaldiyeh, which is located on the northern edge of the Old City, broadcasting footage that showed gaping holes in apartment blocks, shattered buildings with collapsed floors and blackened facades. Soldiers and reporters walked through rubble-strewn streets. The military took TV crews working for pro-regime media outlets deep into the neighborhood, suggesting the army was confident it had secured the area.
An unidentified Syrian army commander standing before a destroyed building in Khaldiyeh told an embedded state TV reporter that the military expected to “liberate” the last part of the district within the next two days.
Syrian government forces captured the ancient Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in Khaldiyeh on Saturday. Syrian TV aired a report with video from inside the mosque, showing heavy damage. The video showed debris littering the floor and a portion of the mosque appeared to have been burned.
Famous for its nine domes and two minarets, the mosque has been a symbol for rebels in the city, and the government takeover dealt a powerful symbolic blow to the rebellion. On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam. Video showed the tomb’s roof knocked down.
The Observatory and other activists said government troops are backed by members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside regime forces in their assault on rebel-held territory in the central region.
Syria’s main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, acknowledged that rebels had retreated from parts of Khaldiyeh, calling it a “tactical withdrawal.”
“After the heavy bombardment of the Khaldiyeh area of Homs, using thousands of rockets, explosive barrels and large amounts of heavy weaponry … Assad forces have managed to overtake a few yards of the land that they have pulverized,” it said in a statement.
It said Assad was attempting the lift the sagging morale of his soldiers by exaggerating its victory in Homs, and vowed that rebels would soon retake the area.
In addition to its symbolic value, Homs is a geographic lynchpin in Syria. The main highway from Damascus to the north and the coast, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, runs through Homs.
An official in the Homs governor’s office said a car bomb exploded near a checkpoint on the Homs-Tartous highway, killing three people and wounding 5 others. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
In northeastern Syria, the death toll from nearly two weeks of clashes between al-Qaida-linked fighters and Kurdish militiamen rose to 120, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group. It said the dead include 79 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra, both al-Qaida-affiliated rebel groups. The Observatory monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists on the ground.
The latest round of fighting flared in Ras al-Ayn on July 6 in the predominantly Kurdish province of Hassakeh in the northeast near the Turkish border. Kurdish gunmen are fighting to expel the militants, whom they see as a threat.
Also on Sunday, the Coalition condemned the reported execution of scores of government soldiers by rebels in a northern Syrian village several days ago, and said “those involved in such crimes will be held accountable.”
The group, made up of exiled opposition leaders, said in a statement that it was forming a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident in Khan al-Assal.
Syrian activists say rebels killed 150 government soldiers, some after they surrendered, on Monday and Tuesday in the village outside Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
State media said that 123 “civilians and military personnel” were killed in a “massacre” and others were still missing.
The Coalition said initial reports showed “armed groups” not affiliated with the main rebel coalition were involved. It did not elaborate, but the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra says its fighters participated in the battle.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the crime “will not pass without punishment,” vowing that the perpetrators will pay a “dear price.”
In an interview with Syrian TV late Saturday, he said the “massacre” aimed to spread fear and panic among people at a time when the Syrian military was achieving significant progress on the ground.
In a separate statement, the Coalition urged Egypt to release dozens of Syrians it said were arrested last week allegedly for violating residency regulations.
It said Egyptian police arrested at least 72 Syrian men and nine boys at checkpoints on main roads in Cairo. Some had valid visas or residence permits but were arrested “on the pretext of not having residence permits,” it said.
The Coalition said regulations concerning Syrians’ entrance into Egypt were changed. Since July 8, Syrians have been required to obtain entry visas and security clearance before they are allowed to enter Egypt.
It urged the Egyptian government not to deport Syrians, saying Cairo has an “ethical and humanitarian duty to protect the Syrian people fleeing the tyranny” at home.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.