Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a military offensive on Saturday against rebel-held areas of Homs,the country’s third-largest city and a centre of the two-year-old uprising against his rule.
Activists said jets and mortars pounded rebel territory and soldiers attacked the district of Khalidiyah,where state television reported they were making “great progress”. Video uploaded on the Internet showed heavy explosions and clouds of white smoke after what the activists said were air strikes on the adjacent neighbourhood of Jouret al-Shiyyah.
The attack on Homs city follows steady military gains by Assad’s forces,backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants,in provincial Homs villages and towns close to the Lebanese border.
Those gains have consolidated Assad’s control over a corridor of territory linking the capital Damascus with the traditional heartland of his minority Alawite sect in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the 27-month-old conflict in Syria,which pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad,whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
The civil war has also driven 1.7 million refugees to seek shelter in neighbouring countries and is turning into a proxy conflict for Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim powers in the Middle East.