BEIRUT — Government troops launched a series of attacks in central Syria on Saturday, striking with artillery, tanks, and warplanes in a drive to capture rebel-held neighborhoods in the country’s third largest city of Homs, activists said.
The army of President Bashar Assad has been on the offensive in Homs province in recent weeks, reclaiming some of the territory it has lost to the rebels since Syria’s crisis began 27 months ago.
The military, building on its capture of the strategic town of Qusair between the Lebanese border and Homs at the beginning of this month, has overrun a number of nearby villages. It also has hammered the center of the city, a rebel stronghold since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Homs, a city of about 1 million, has shown great sympathy for the opposition since the early days of the uprising. A month after it started, protesters carried mattresses, food, and water to the main Clock Square, hoping to emulate Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s revolt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Security forces quickly raided the encampment, shooting at protesters and chasing them through the streets. The onslaught only boosted the intensity of the protests, fueling a revolt that has posed the most serious challenge to date to the Assad family dynasty that has ruled Syria since 1970.
Homs is the capital of Syria’s largest province, which carries the same name and extends from the Lebanese border to the frontier with Jordan and Iraq.
Activists in the city said all cellular lines were cut early Saturday before warplanes pounded rebel-held areas. The air raids were followed by intense shelling with artillery, mortars, and tanks, before troops tried to advance.
Several activists in the city said the regime began bringing in reinforcements last week, apparently in preparation for the attack.
Two activists said about 400 shells struck rebel-held areas such as Qusour, Jouret el-Shayah, Old Homs, and Khaldiyeh.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes hit two districts in the center of the city.It said the army also fired mortar shells into the neighborhoods.
Also Saturday, the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center said a missile hit Aleppo’s Katourji neighborhood, killing and wounding several people. The Observatory said at least three people were killed while the media center said the death toll could be as high as 15.