Middle East

Syria says army retakes Homs district from rebels

DAMASCUS: The Syrian regime said on Monday its troops recaptured a rebel district of Homs, a key symbol of the country's revolt, after a relentless one-month offensive.

Activists on the ground told AFP government troops now controlled 90 percent of Khaldiyeh neighbourhood.

The takeover is the second military success for President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Homs province in two months, after troops took over the former rebel bastion of Qusayr in June.

The full recapture of Homs, dubbed by rebels "the capital of the revolution," would be a strategic win for the regime.

The city straddles a route linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast and the Alawite hinterland of Assad's minority community.

"The armed forces have restored security and stability across the neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh," one of the largest rebel bastions in the central city, state television said.

"Collapse of the terrorists' 'citadel' in Khaldiyeh -- we're going from victory to victory," the broadcaster crowed.

The army, backed by fighters from Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah militant group, launched the assault on Khaldiyeh a month ago bolstered by the capture in June, also with Hezbollah help, of the Homs province town of Qusayr.

Several neighbourhoods in the Old City remain in rebel hands, but troops, who have a foothold in that part of town too, appear determined to dislodge them.

"The capture of Khaldiyeh will make it easier (for the army) to retake the Old City and other (rebel) districts like Qussur," Homs-based activist Mahmud al-Lowz told AFP via the Internet.

"If Homs city falls, the north of Syria will be cut off from the south," he added.

An army officer, interview on state television, said regime forces hope to "cleanse the whole of Syria" after the Khaldiyeh victory.

"We dedicate this victory to Bashar al-Assad," he added, standing next to a pile of rubble.

State television also showed a group of soldiers chanting "we sacrifice our soul and our blood for you, O Bashar."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fierce early morning battles preceded the recapture of Khaldiyeh, calling the fighting "the most violent since the offensive was launched."

The neighbourhood had endured near-daily air and artillery bombardments and a suffocating siege that prevented not only weapons but also food and medical supplies from being brought in.

"The (rebel) retreat is the result of the heavy air and artillery bombardment," Homs-based activist Abu Rami told AFP by Internet, adding that the army now controls "90 percent" of Khaldiyeh.

"Khaldiyeh may have fallen, but Homs has not.

"We have lost this round, but we haven't lost the war... We hold the international community and the Syrian opposition responsible for what is happening in Homs," he said.

It is the most important military victory for the regime in Homs city since the March 2012 capture of Baba Amr district, another symbol of the rebellion, following an offensive that killed hundreds.

As the army advanced in Khaldiyeh, warplanes struck the Bab Hud neighbourhood of the Old City, just to the south, the Britain-based Observatory said.

Activists said the army's takeover of other rebel areas in Homs will be facilitated by the fact that Khaldiyeh cuts between the Old City district and other rebel areas such as Jouret al-Shiyah and Qussur.

The Khaldiyeh takeover comes two days after the army seized the historic Khaled Bin Walid Mosque, which was a focal point of the uprising, now in its third year.

Facing army advances in Homs, the rebels last week seized the key Khan al-Assal bastion in the northern province of Aleppo after months of fighting, while making advances in the southern province of Daraa near the border with Jordan.

Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah, which has deployed fighters to fight alongside Assad's forces in Syria, in a statement released on Monday condemned the "horrific massacre" of regime troops by rebels in Khan al-Assal last week.

Some 150 regime troops died in fighting with rebels for control of Khan al-Assal last week. The Observatory says more than 50 of those killed were executed by rebels.

Hezbollah meanwhile "renewed the call to the Syrian people to sit together at the negotiating table".

As UN efforts to convene a Russian- and US-backed peace conference have faltered, Assad's regime has pressed its offensives mainly around central Syria and Damascus.





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