DAMASCUS/AMMAN: Syrian insurgents launched a surprise dawn raid Sunday to retake a key district of the central city of Homs, as the opposition again postponed a meeting to form a provisional government.
Rebels launched the counteroffensive in the Bab Amr district, breaking through government lines in the north and west, opposition sources said.
Homs, 140 km north of Damascus, lies at a vital road juncture linking army bases on the coast, where a large proportion of President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect live, and government forces in the capital.
Both sides have taken heavy casualties since the army went on the attack 10 days ago to take the central districts of Khalidieh, Al-Qusour and Old Homs, where rebel brigades have been dug in for months according to opposition military sources.
Fighters based in the provinces of Hama and Idlib advanced on Homs this weekend from the north while brigades from rural Homs attacked government positions in the western Bab Amr district. This area was overrun by the army after a long siege a year ago and subsequently visited by Assad.
Abu Imad, an opposition activist in Homs, said the sound of the aerial bombardment on Bab Amr was shaking the city. “This situation is muddled in the whole of Homs, but what is certain is that the regime is busy trying to repel rebel brigades who have broken into Bab Amr from its rural surroundings,” he said.
The official state news agency SANA said that “a unit of our brave army engaged with an armed terrorist group that had tried to infiltrate Bab Amr ... and killed and wounded several of its members.”
Omar, an activist who is in touch with the insurgents, said rebels infiltrated Bab Amr under cover of darkness. “Those manning the army checkpoints barely had time to realize what was going on,” he said.
The army later massed reinforcements around Bab Amr, Omar said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops sealed off several streets around Bab Amr amid shelling and clashes in the district, with air raids following hours later.
Head of the Britain-based activist group Rami Abdel-Rahman said the “surprise” dawn assault came after troops had reduced their presence in Bab Amr to target other rebel-held districts. The Observatory said at least 11 soldiers were killed in Bab Amr.
Opposition campaigners said Sunday at least 20 bodies of young men shot by security forces were found in a small waterway running through the contested city of Aleppo.It was the largest number of bodies lifted in a single day from what became known as “the river of martyrs,” after 65 bodies turned up in late January. An average of several bodies a day have been appearing in the river ever since, several activists in the northern city, which is near Turkey, told Reuters.
Most bodies found so far floated down the River Queiq to the opposition-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood after being dumped in an upstream district in central Aleppo that is under the control of Assad’s forces and home to several security compounds, opposition activists in Aleppo said.
There was no official comment from the government. State media said the bodies found in January were those of people abducted and killed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
Also Sunday, government airstrikes killed at least 14 people in the northern province of Raqqa less than a week after rebels seized the area’s provincial capital, activists said.
The city of Raqqa is the first of Syria’s provincial capitals to fall completely under rebel control, and their behavior since taking the city has raised concerns about how they will administer the area.
A video posted Saturday showed the provincial governor, Hassan Jalalil, and the head of Assad’s ruling Baath party, Suleiman al-Suleiman, sitting in front of the black flag of the Nusra Front, an extremist rebel group the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.
The two were captured by rebels when they stormed the governor’s palace on March 4.
In the video, Suleiman says that before his capture he was scared that rebels were extremists.
“But my view has changed, and I have seen that the Nusra Front has a religious program that follows Allah and his prophet,” he said.
There was no way to establish if he was speaking under duress.
In the oil-producing east, where rebels hold large swathes of territory, insurgents including the Nusra Front have set up a religious council to administer police, judicial and emergency services in the area, the groups said in a statement.
“God commanded the Islamic battalions to form a religious council in the east to administer the affairs of the people and fill a security gap,” said the statement, distributed by the Observatory.
In the latest setback to opposition efforts to create an administration to take over if Assad is ousted, the opposition National Coalition Sunday postponed talks on the formation of an interim government for the second time in weeks.
The meeting was initially scheduled for last month in Istanbul but was postponed until Tuesday this week. It has now been delayed again, with a possible new date between March 18 and 20, opposition sources said.
“We cannot afford a split over this issue any more. The revolution was not born chaotic,” said coalition member Kamal al-Labwani, a veteran opposition figure who spent nine years as a political prisoner after Assad took over from his father in 2000.
Labwani said the coalition was divided over the merits of forming government, with some preferring to wait and see if U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts to form a transitional government as part of a political compromise succeed.
Others want to form a government immediately to pre-empt any deal that could see Assad remaining in power, Labwani said.