President Bashar al-Assad’s forces pounded Sunni Muslim rebels in the city of Homs with artillery and from the air today, the second day of an offensive to expand loyalist control over Syria’s strategic centre, activists said.
They said rebels defending the old centre of Homs and five adjacent Sunni districts had largely repelled a ground attack on Saturday by Assad’s forces but reported fresh clashes and deaths within the city today.
The offensive follows steady military gains by Assad’s forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, in villages in Homs province and towns close to the Lebanese border.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad must halt his “brutal assault” on Homs. Gulf countries, which back the rebels, urged Lebanon to stop “parties” interfering in the Syria conflict, a reference to Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Opposition sources and diplomats said the loyalist advance had tightened the siege of Homs and secured a main road link to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon and to army bases in Alawite-held territory near the Syrian coast, the main entry point for Russian arms that have given Assad a key advantage in firepower.
At least 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolt against four decades of rule by Assad and his late father erupted in March 2011, making the uprising the bloodiest of the Arab Spring popular revolutions against entrenched autocrats.