BEIRUT

Middle East

Desperate moves by rebels as Homs campaign intensifies

Shelling near the National Hospital in central Homs

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces kept up an intense nine-day shelling and airstrike campaign against opposition forces in central Homs Sunday, including against a central ancient mosque believed to be hosting dozens of rebel fighters.

Government forces are firing from a stronghold of buildings on the outskirts of the rebel-held district of Khaldieh, according to activists inside the city.

Videos released by activists and uploaded to YouTube showed bombs exploding around the densely built area surrounding the 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, famous for its domes and two minarets. Smoke appeared to be rising from the mosque complex while a shell hole from previous rounds of fighting was clearly visible in one of the mosque’s nine domes.

Buildings around the complex showed extreme signs of destruction as a result of the siege.

A Homs-based activist identified as Nidal said parts of the wall surrounding the mosque complex had been blown away.

Attempts to flush out the fighters from the rebel stronghold and the city’s ancient Old City have so far failed, but there are signs the opposition resources are running thin.

In a desperate move, rebels inside Khaldieh recorded videos of themselves strapped with explosive belts, pledging to blow up themselves and their surroundings if regime forces entered the mosque complex.“We have been besieged here for a year and a month now. We have been pounded with missiles, tank shells and warplanes,” one of the fighters says in the video.

“We have not received any kind of arms despite the pledges from the Free Syrian Army and the Arab countries. Where are the Muslims? We had to make these explosive belts because we have no other means to defend ourselves.”

“We have only one weapon left which we have made by our hands; these explosive belts. They will not enter the grave of Khalid bin al-Walid. We will blow up ourselves among them before we allow them to enter the Khaldieh neighborhood.”

Khaldieh-based activist Abu Bilal said fighters were low on weapons. He said the international community, despite promises to arm rebels, had left them hanging in Homs. “They have sold Homs to the enemy,” he complained.

“We’re under heavy pressure, especially on the Khaldieh front. The fighting is fierce and we are living off very scarce supplies,” said anti-regime activist Abu Khaled.

“We have run out of nearly all fuel and medical equipment after more than a year under siege,” he told AFP.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has assessed that fighting and government strikes have now left 60 to 70 percent of the Khaldieh and Old City districts damaged, destroyed or uninhabitable.

“Sixty to 70 percent of buildings in Khaldieh are either totally destroyed, partially destroyed, or unsuitable for habitation,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

Tens of thousands of residents of Syria’s third biggest city have fled the fighting. “Of all Syria’s cities, Homs has suffered the highest levels of destruction ... Images of Homs make it look like a world war has hit the city,” he added.

Further north, the Observatory reported that shelling of central prison in Syria’s second city of Aleppo had killed six prisoners, as part of a long battle for control of the ancient city.

The shells were fired Friday night, the Observatory said, although it was not clear which side was responsible.

Rebel forces, including an Al-Qaeda affiliated group, have been fighting for weeks to seize control of the prison in Aleppo, besieging it. The Observatory estimated some 120 prisoners have died in the jail since April from fighting, illness and executions.

Syria’s state run news agency SANA said “a number” of rebels were killed in the shelling but did not give an exact number.

With government forces stepping up offensives, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood called on the U.S. and Europe to send arms.

“Providing the Free Syrian Army and the revolutionary rebels with appropriate arms is more urgent now than at any time in the past,” the movement wrote on social media sites. “We feel cheated and disappointed because the U.S. and Europe have backed out from arming the FSA,” it said.

Last month the U.S. decided in principle to provide some weapons to rebel forces, though Western countries are concerned they might land in the hands of extremist Sunnis fighting with the rebels.

In signs of increasing sectarian tensions, rebels and government forces also clashed near the Shiite towns of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province Sunday, the Observatory and pro-rebel activists reported. The towns have been besieged since at least May by hard-line Sunni rebels seeking to dislodge their enemies.

The Observatory said fighting killed three regime troops, including one foreigner, code for a fighter from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Rebels claim that Assad’s forces and Hezbollah fighters are in the two towns. A hard-line Sunni brigade warned last week it would punish Shiites for harboring the forces, suggesting the towns’ populations of some 40,000 Shiites could be targeted.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 08, 2013, on page 1.

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