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Middle East

Inside Homs: Desperate and defiant, Assad's opponents prepare for the worst

As the army closes in, people are losing hope

For one activist in shell-shattered Homs, it was only when the artillery fire finally stopped that he really began to worry. "The tanks went silent two hours ago," said Mahmoud Araby yesterday afternoon. "That's how we knew the Syrian army was about to enter the area."

Opposition fighters were mounting a desperate attempt last night to fend off what many feared was the beginning of a full-scale ground operation to wrest back control of rebel-held neighbourhoods in Homs. Members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose affiliation of former government troops, were engaged in gunfights on the edge of Bab Amr, a neighbourhood in western Homs which has become a wasteland after four days of non-stop shelling from government troops.

Underscoring the sense of fear among residents, Mahmoud, a 25-year-old student with close ties to the rebel soldiers, told The Independent that the FSA was running low on ammunition and could probably only repel advancing government troops for a day at most.

"They only have Kalashnikov rifles," he said. "I think that if the fighting continues for one more day then the Syrian army will be able to enter Bab Amr." He declined to say how many FSA soldiers were stationed in the area.

Other activists and NGOs, including the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), also claimed that President Assad's troops were mounting an all-out attack on anti-government areas.

The true picture, however, remains in question, as Homs remains largely cut off from the outside world. While many claimed that a full-on assault was under way, Wissam Tarif from the Avaaz campaigning organisation said he was puzzled by reports that the military was attempting to storm rebel-held areas of the city. "It doesn't make any sense. Why would they go inside a territory where everyone there has got a cousin or brother who has been killed?"

But there was agreement on the sad state of affairs inside Homs. One activist spoke of the deteriorating conditions inside the city which has been bombarded for four consecutive days now. "The shelling has been going on for days and the siege is getting worse," said the man, who called himself Omar. "We are short of everything including food and medical supplies. People here have not slept for days."

Mahmoud Araby added all of the pharmacies in Bab Amr had been destroyed, while scores of women and children had been forced to take shelter in a local wedding hall.

According to the SOHR, at least 15 were people were killed by shellfire yesterday in the districts of Bab Amr, Khaldiyeh and Bayada. Four of them were government soldiers.

Rami Abdul Rahman, the SOHR chief, said a humanitarian crisis was now developing as conditions inside the besieged city grew unbearable. "There are more than 300 injured people and many of them have lost feet or hands in the explosions," he said. "The people who have been killed are gone now. The problem is those who are still alive. What do you do if you have lost your eyes or one of your limbs? What kind of life will you have in future?"

Field hospitals inside Homs, one of which was shelled on Monday, are staffed by volunteer doctors who are ill-equipped to deal with the maimed victims of shelling and rocket fire. "They are trying, but it is hard," said Mr Abdul Rahman.