DAMASCUS: Syrian army forces advanced Friday around rebel-held areas of the Old City of Homs as a car bomb hit a regime-controlled part of the city, killing at least 16 people.
Around 1,200 rebel fighters and nearly 200 civilians are believed to be inside the rebel-held parts of the Old City, which has been under army siege for nearly two years.
The army, which began a broad offensive there Tuesday, “is progressing daily by capturing buildings and tightening the noose around the terrorist groups,” a security source said, referring to rebels.
The source added that regime forces seized a church in the Old City.
State news agency SANA said the army had seized buildings in the Bab Hud and Wadi al-Sayeh districts and “killed a number of terrorists in Homs city and around it.”
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the advance, saying the army was shelling Bab Hud and Wadi al-Sayeh.
But he said the regime had so far only captured buildings rather than whole streets, and added that fighting was continuing.
“There are street battles, but the loyalist forces are not advancing much because the buildings are mined,” the head of the Britain-based anti-regime activist group said.
The remaining rebel fighters in Homs “know the area very well and refuse to leave. They want to fight until the end,” he added.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned what she called the government’s “breaking of the cessation of hostilities, and its brutal assault against residents” of Homs’ Old City.
“The regime’s bombardments and encirclement of the city is a despicable example of its starve-and-surrender battlefield approach. We urge the regime to cease its attacks on the Old City, and allow for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
Her comments came one day after members of the U.N. Security Council expressed concern over the plight of civilians caught in the renewed fighting in Homs.
And they called for implementation of a resolution passed in February urging immediate access of humanitarian assistance in all parts of Syria.
In February, a U.N.-led operation evacuated around half of the 3,000 people trapped under army siege in rebel-held parts of Homs.
State media and the Observatory reported Friday afternoon that a car bomb had exploded outside a mosque in the government-controlled neighborhood of Akrameh.
State media said it detonated as people were leaving the mosque after Friday prayers, while the Observatory hinted that a military intelligence checkpoint was the target.
It said two intelligence personnel were among the 16 victims, a figure that was expected to rise because at least 18 more people remained in critical condition.
Video footage purporting to show the immediate aftermath of the blast showed several mangled bodies and broad streaks of blood on the pavement around the mosque.
In Aleppo, the Observatory said at least 10 people had been killed in shelling and aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas.
At least three children were among those killed, the group said.
The regime has waged a campaign of aerial raids including the use of explosives-packed barrel bombs that has prompted an exodus of civilians from rebel-held areas.
In recent days, fighting between rebels and regime forces in the city has ramped up, with some 50 combatants from both sides killed in an opposition assault on a military base on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, according to the Observatory.
In Mliha, a suburb of the capital, the Observatory said at least 15 air raids had been carried out as regime forces backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah battled rebels on the ground.
Meanwhile, Turkish troops shot dead a Syrian Kurd as he and others approached the border in northern Aleppo province, the Observatory said.