Syrian army unleashes offensive

BEIRUT — Syria’s army unleashed a barrage of rocket and artillery fire on rebel-held areas in a central province Friday as part of a widening offensive against fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad. At least 140 people were killed in fighting nationwide, according to activist groups.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said a record number of Syrians streamed into Jordan this month, doubling the population of the kingdom’s already-cramped refugee camp to 65,000. More than 30,000 people arrived in Zaatari in January — 6,000 in the past two days alone, the UN said.

The newcomers are mostly families, women, children, and the elderly who fled from southern Syria, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She said the UNHCR was working with the Jordanian government to open a second major camp nearby by the end of this month.


Many of the new arrivals at Zaatari are from the southern town of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad first erupted two years ago, the Britain-based Save the Children said Friday.

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Five buses, crammed with ‘‘frightened and exhausted people who fled with what little they could carry,’’ pull up every hour at the camp, said Saba al-Mobasat, an aid worker with Save the Children.

The exodus reflected the latest spike in violence in Syria’s civil war. The conflict began in March 2011 after a peaceful uprising against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, turned violent.

Despite significant rebel advances on the battlefield, the opposition remains outgunned by government forces and has been unable to break a stalemate on the ground.

In Lebanon, the leader of the Syria-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Friday in a speech that those who dream about ‘‘dramatic changes’’ taking place in Syria should let go of their fantasies.


‘‘Particularly those who were expecting the fall of Damascus,’’ he told supporters, adding that military, political, and international developments point to the futility of such dreams.

Activists said the army recently brought in military reinforcements to the central province of Homs and launched a renewed offensive aimed at retaking patches of territory that have been held by rebels.

An amateur video posted online by activists showed rockets slamming into buildings in the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the provincial capital, Homs.

Another video showed thick black and gray smoke rising from a building in the besieged city. ‘‘The city of Homs is burning . . . day and night, the shelling of Homs doesn’t stop,’’ the narrator is heard saying.

Troops also battled rebels around Damascus in an effort to dislodge opposition fighters who have set up enclaves in surrounding towns and villages. The troops fired artillery shells Friday at several districts, including Zabadani and Daraya, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime planes carried out airstrikes on the suburb of Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held area near Damascus.

The Observatory, which like the LCC relies on activists around Syria, said at least 80 people were killed in violence across the country Friday.