BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops have advanced into rebel-held areas of the city of Homs, pushing into a heavily contested neighborhood after pummeling it with artillery that drove out opposition fighters, an activist said Saturday.
The push into Khaldiyeh district was the first significant gain for troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who have been waging an eight-day campaign to seize parts of the central Syrian city in rebel hands for over a year.
Tariq Badrakhan, an activist based in the neighborhood, said government troops used rockets, mortars and cannon fire to flush out the area's "first line of defenses" on Friday evening. The offensive continued Saturday morning, he said via Skype, as explosions were heard in the background.
"We feel like they are shaking the sky," Badrakhan said.
Another activist said eight rebels were killed in the fighting. He requested anonymity because rebels have accused him in the past of damaging their morale by reporting their casualties. He could not confirm that government forces had entered Khaldiyeh but said it was consistent with fighting he was following there. State-run media said government forces had seized buildings in the nearby Bab Houd area.
The Syrian conflict, which began with months of peaceful protests against the Assad regime two years ago, deteriorated into an all-out civil war after a violent government crackdown.
Government forces, sometimes backed by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have launched a major countrywide offensive to reclaim territory lost to rebels, who operate in chaotic groups with ideologies ranging from secular to hardline Islamic extremists.
Hardline Sunni Muslims from other countries have also joined the fighting, which has left more than 93,000 people dead. On Saturday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported some 60 fighters and 40 civilians were killed across the country the day before. The Observatory, which counts on a network of activists on the ground, did not have updated figures for Saturday.
In other violence Saturday, fighting continued in the northern city of Aleppo, a crucial stronghold for the rebels, which are dependent on nearby towns and villages on the Turkish border as a supply route.
There were also clashes in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, as the regime tried to push opposition forces further away from the capital, the British-based Observatory reported.
State-run television said government forces seized control of the area, adding that the move had cut off rebel weapons supplies and movement between the neighborhoods of Jobar, Qaboun, Zamalka and Harasta.
Homs is located between Damascus and the Syrian coast, a stronghold for the Assad regime, makes it a strategic prize.
Most of the city of about one million is under government control, and the fighting is concentrated in areas where the rebels are dug in. Some 2,500 to 4,000 civilians are still in those areas, U.N. officials estimate. The remaining inhabitants are either rebels or their activist supporters.
Activist Badrakhan said fighters in the Khaldiyeh district had held out until Friday evening, when they were hit with explosions that killed some and caused others to flee.
He provided The Associated Press with three videos showing a series of fighters lying on flimsy mattresses in what was described as a makeshift clinic in Khaldiyeh. The faces and hands of four men appeared blackened with burns.
Clashes and shelling continued Saturday in neighborhoods around Homs' Old City, said another Homs-based activist who gave his name only as Nedal for fear of government reprisals.
Online video posted from the area showed thunderous artillery explosions and plumes of grey smoke. One building crackled with flames; others appeared battered and smashed.
"Oh God, save Homs," pleads a man in the background. The video, posted on Saturday, appeared consistent with AP's reporting from the area.
Nedal said shelling had intensified since Friday morning and Syrian military intelligence forces were arresting people suspected of being loyal to the rebels.
"They are taken and it's a death sentence," he said. "They disappear."
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