DAMASCUS: Syrian army troops backed by pro-regime militiamen entered rebel-held neighborhoods of Homs Tuesday after seizing the last village in the mountainous Qalamoun region on Lebanon’s border.
The attacks come a day after Syrian troops swept through some of the last remaining opposition strongholds in the countryside north of Damascus. Government forces captured three villages, including the ancient Christian hamlet of Maaloula, as part of an attempt to sever rebel supply routes across the frontier.
Another town in the area, Aasal al-Ward, fell into government hands Tuesday, state TV and the anti-regime Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based Observatory said the regime and its allies now enjoyed “quasi-total” control over the Qalamoun region.
The Syrian army, backed by fighters from Hezbollah, launched an offensive in the rugged region in November. It has captured all but a few opposition strongholds in the area since then, strengthening its grip on the border while also boosting the defenses of Damascus.
Regime forces and paramilitaries also achieved advances in Homs, after a U.N. operation earlier this year evacuated some 1,400 people trapped inside the besieged neighborhoods, though around 1,300 people, mostly fighters, remained behind.
“The Syrian army and the [pro-regime militia] National Defense Forces have achieved key successes in the Old City of Homs,” Syrian state television said. It added that troops were advancing in several besieged neighborhoods and had “killed a number of terrorists,” using the regime’s term for opponents of President Bashar Assad.
Activists on the ground and the Observatory both confirmed the offensive.
“They have entered into one [besieged] area, Wadi al-Sayeh, which lies between Jouret al-Shiyah and the Old City,” Abu Bilal, an activist trapped inside the blockade, told AFP via the Internet.
“This is the first time the regime has entered the besieged areas since it took Khaldieh” district in summer 2013, he added.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said regime forces began the advance a day earlier after being reinforced by NDF forces.
Homs, which is Syria’s third-largest city, is referred to by opposition supporters as the “capital of the revolution” for the large protests held there when the uprising began in March 2011.
Most of the central city is now under regime control and rebel-held pockets have been under a government siege for nearly two years, leading to dwindling food and medical supplies.
Elsewhere, fierce clashes pitting regime troops and their allies against rebel militias raged in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Latakia and Deraa provinces, as well as in the suburbs of Damascus.
Two mortar bombs landed near schools in predominantly Christian districts of the capital, killing one child and wounding 41 other people, state media said.
Syria’s official news agency SANA said one of the shells struck a school in the Bab Touma neighborhood, killing one child and wounding 36 others. In a separate attack, another mortar bomb exploded near the Mar Elias Church in the nearby Dweilaa district, wounding five people. The church compound also includes a school.
The Damascus suburbs of Mliha, Daraya and Moadamieh all saw clashes, while in the northern city of Aleppo, fighting raged in several areas, including near the Air Force Intelligence headquarters, while the rebels disabled a regime tank in the Sheikh Said neighborhood, the Observatory said.
In the south, a Grad rocket slammed into an area on the edge of the Druze-majority city of Swaida near an Army recruitment center, activists and the Observatory said.
No casualties were reported in the attack.
The Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, issued a statement late Monday in which it vowed to target military and paramilitary targets in the province, in retaliation for the regime’s campaign against villages and towns in neighboring Deraa province.
An anti-regime activist group from Swaida said the rocket strike would “serve only the interest of the regime,” after a recent spell of outrage against the authorities there erupted into street protests.
Tensions have risen after armed residents of the city demanded, and received, the ouster of the Military Intelligence chief for Swaida and Deraa.
Monday’s nationwide death toll, according to the Observatory, stood at 269 people, of whom 202 were fighters from the various sides.