DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Rockets slammed into government-held districts Thursday in the central Syrian city of Homs, setting off successive explosions in a weapons depot that killed at least 40 people, an opposition group and residents said. The blasts came hours after state TV showed President Bashar Assad making a rare visit to a former rebel bastion near the capital, Damascus, to mark Army Day.
The twin developments showed that rebels fighting to oust Assad are still able to strike back despite significant advances by the military that have bolstered the confidence of the regime
One resident in Homs said the blasts, which sent a massive ball of fire, thick smoke and dust into the sky, were so strong they cracked the walls of some buildings and shook the ground.
The blasts sent a massive ball of fire into the sky and caused widespread damage and panic among residents, many of whom are supporters of President Bashar Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting via a network of activists on the ground, said 40 people were killed and 120 were wounded — some critically — when rockets struck the arms depot and ignited the fire.
A resident of Homs corroborated that account, saying he heard blasts for more than an hour after the first explosion. He said they could be heard from the overwhelmingly pro-regime districts of Wadi Dahab and al-Walid, where the regime is known to keep arms depots.
"Rockets were falling on the area ... when the arms depot began to explode but we don't know if the rockets triggered the blasts," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
He said the explosions were so strong that "they shook parts of the city." They also shattered all windows in the area and cracked walls, he added.
He said he spoke with Syrian Arab Red Crescent paramedics who told him that at least 22 bodies were taken to hospitals.
An official at the governor's office in Homs said six people were killed and 130 wounded when about 10 rockets slammed into the neighborhood of Zahra and the nearby sports stadium. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
Government officials often give conflicting figures than those provided by the opposition. There was no immediately explanation for the discrepancy, and state-run media did not report the incident.
Assad's visit to Daraya was his first known public trip outside the capital, his seat of power, in more than a year. He visited the battered Baba Amr district in Homs after troops seized it from rebels in March 2012.
It also is the latest sign of confidence from Assad, whose troops have been on the offensive and scored significant gains against rebels in recent months. Assad pledged victory over troops fighting to topple him.
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against the Assad family's four-decade rule began in March 2011. The revolt later escalated into a civil war, which has uprooted millions of people from their homes.
Daraya, just south of Damascus, was held by rebels for months and it took the army weeks of heavy fighting to regain control of the area earlier this year.
Before his trip to Daraya, Assad lauded his troops' accomplishments in the battle against opposition forces.
"You have stunned the entire world with your steadfastness and ability to overcome the difficulties and score achievements in the face of the fiercest barbaric war the modern history has ever witnessed," he said in comments released for Army Day and carried by the state news agency SANA. "Had we in Syria not been confident of victory, we wouldn't have been able to resist" for more than two years.
In August 2012, activists reported that regime forces went on a dayslong killing spree after they seized Daraya from rebels.
At the time, reports of the death toll ranged from more than 300 people to as many as 600. It was impossible at the time to independently verify the numbers because of severe restrictions on media coverage of the conflict.
Assad's comments Thursday followed several major gains against the rebels, mostly in the central province of Homs and near Damascus.
The rebels suffered two major setbacks during a wide-ranging government offensive in central Syria. In June, Assad's army recaptured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border. Earlier this week, government troops took control of a district in the city of Homs that had long been an opposition stronghold.
Also Thursday, five major aid agencies, which warned that the Syrian refugee crisis is stretching aid efforts to their limits.
The agencies — including CARE International, Oxfam, Danish Refugee Council, Handicap International and World Vision — said they are increasingly concerned that the international response is failing to match the scale of the crisis.
Their joint statement said more than 1.4 million Syrians — or 80 percent of all Syrian refugees — are now living in tents, temporary settlements, or over-crowded and expensive rented accommodations.
Mroue reported from Beirut.