BEIRUT (AP) — A government rocket attack killed at least 12 people in a village in central Syria Wednesday, while rebels battled regime forces over two key military bases in the northwest where government troops broke an opposition siege last week, activists said.
The fighting in both places ties into efforts by President Bashar Assad's military to reverse rebel advances that have left vast stretches of northern Syria in the hands of opposition fighters. The government is also eager to shore up supply lines to its forces stretched thin by the 2-year-old fight against a relentless rebellion in a conflict that has killed more than 70,000.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rockets struck the village of Eastern Buwaydah outside of Homs, and said two children and three women were among those killed. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said rebels and government forces also engaged in heavy fighting nearby.
Eastern Buwaydah is located between Homs, Syria's third-largest city, and the Lebanese border. The region is of strategic value to Assad's regime because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawites and also home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
Syria's regime is dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — while the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad are mostly from the country's Sunni majority. Assad's major allies, the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and Iran, are both Shiite.
An amateur video posted online showed at least seven bodies, including a young girl with a bloody gash to her head, laid out on the floor of a room. A man can be seen wrapping the body of a boy in a white sheet as another man standing over them cries out, "Oh God, turn us victorious against Bashar. They killed innocent children."
"Is this child carrying a gun? This child is 12 years old," says the man, who appears to be the father of the dead boy. "Oh God. You gave him to me and now you are taking him."
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, rebels were attacking government troops Wednesday as anti-Assad fighters tried to check recent regime advances around the military bases of Hamadiya and Wadi Deif near the city of Maaret al-Numan.
Government forces killed more than 20 fighters in an ambush in the area on Saturday, allowing them to break the rebel hold on the countryside around the bases and ferry supplies to forces in the camps. For weeks, the military had to drop supplies in by helicopter to the besieged troops.
"The rebels are trying to re-impose a siege on the camps," Abdul-Rahman said. "They want to close the highway ... to stop them from supporting Wadi Deif and Hamadiya."
The fight for the two bases fits into the broader struggle for control of northern Syria, much of which has fallen to the rebels in the past year. Across the north, most of the countryside is in the hands of anti-Assad fighters, while the regime is holding out in isolated military bases and most urban centers.
Maaret al-Numan lies along the main north-south highway linking Damascus to the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels and government forces have been fighting for control since an opposition offensive on the city last summer.
If the regime were to regain control of the highway, it would open up a badly needed supply route to its forces in Aleppo — potentially paving the way for further government advances in much of the rebel-held north.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests but has since morphed into a civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge abroad, and millions more have fled their homes to try to find safety away from the fighting inside Syria.
As fighting has intensified, international efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict have faltered.
The regime has counted on its two closest allies, Iran and Russia, for support on the international stage and for weapons and cash. The opposition, meanwhile, has received backing from Sunni Arab states as well as Turkey, the U.S. and its Western allies.
Officially, the West is only providing nonlethal assistance. But officials say that in recent months the U.S. and other countries have stepped up covert support for rebels on the ground by helping to coordinate shipments of new weapons and training rebels in Jordan.
In Istanbul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized an upcoming meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul — which brings together Western and Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition — and said efforts to isolate Assad and to arm the opposition were strengthening Islamic militants.
Islamic extremists, such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group, are among the most effective fighters on the rebel side in the civil war, and have spearheaded most of the opposition victories in recent months.
"The consequences of the Syrian crisis are horrible — casualties, suffering, humanitarian crises," Lavrov said. "If the priority is peace, changes and democratic reforms, it's necessary to force the warring parties to sit down for talks. If Assad's departure is the priority, the cost of such geopolitical approach will be more casualties."
"If we allow those making the emphasis on (a) military solution to control the situation, those horrors ... will multiply and the terrorists' influence in the region will grow," he added. "The longer the emphasis on the regime isolation and military solution is made, the more these threats will grow."
AP writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.