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Syrian forces launch ground assault on rebel stronghold

Communication with Homs cut; battle toll unclear

BEIRUT - A communications blackout descended over the besieged Baba Amr district in the central Syrian city of Homs yesterday as Syrian troops, backed by tanks, launched what appeared to be a major offensive aimed at wresting back control of the area from government opponents.

There were reports of at least one fierce battle on the outskirts of the neighborhood, and residents elsewhere in Homs described intense shelling there and in many other parts of the city. There were fears that the violence marked the start of an all-out attempt to crush resistance in the epicenter of the nearly yearlong revolt against Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.

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But with almost all communications to Baba Amr severed, including the satellite phones that activists have been using to transmit news and images of the fighting to the outside world, it was difficult to establish exactly what was happening.

Some activists said the government had blocked satellite transmissions; others said fuel supplies had run out for generators that besieged residents use to power laptops and satellite phones. In the first instance of its kind, opposition groups said they could not provide casualty figures for the day’s fighting in Homs because they could not reach their contacts.

Activists in other parts of Homs described widespread fear as the sound of explosions echoed across the city. One activist, who identified himself only as Abu Emad, said government ground forces tried to enter the Baba Amr neighborhood yesterday morning alongside a sports stadium to the northeast but ran into stiff resistance from rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

Many other neighborhoods also were being bombarded by tank and shell fire, Abu Emad said, adding: “The situation is catastrophic.’’

A defiant statement, purportedly issued by the Free Syrian Army and posted on a Facebook page run by a Baba Amr activist who is now outside the country, said members of the elite Fourth Armored Division commanded by Maher Assad, the president’s brother, had been held at bay by the rebels after the soldiers attempted to enter the neighborhood.

“The Assad army did not enter Bab Amr at all, and they will never enter Bab Amr, God willing, with the brave Free Syrian Army’s protection,’’ the statement said. Government assertions that the rebel fighters are exhausted are baseless, it added. “This is all lies and has no truth to it. We will continue until the end.’’

But an activist hiding in Homs’s Old City said he thought it unlikely that the Free Syrian Army was capable of resisting a major offensive. Mulham Jundi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who sneaked into Homs nearly two weeks ago, said that many rebel fighters had fled Baba Amr and that those who remain are running out of ammunition. He said he left Baba Amr this week after being hit in the leg by a bullet.

With food, water, medical supplies, and fuel running out, Jundi said, the Syrian Army intends to starve and freeze the residents into submission. Snow was falling in Homs, bringing additional challenges for residents who have endured nearly four weeks of almost continuous bombardment.

In Damascus, an unidentified Syrian official indicated that an offensive was underway, telling the Associated Press that Homs would be “cleaned’’ within hours.

The intensified assault came 26 days after troops began shelling the neighborhood, which has become a symbol of resistance to Assad’s rule. Hundreds are thought to have died in the daily bombardments of the residential area, which had fallen under the control of Free Syrian Army fighters over months of repeated clashes.

In Washington, the State Department summoned Syria’s top diplomat, Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour, to “express our outrage over the monthlong campaign of brutality and indiscriminate shelling’’ of Homs, according to a department statement.

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