Syrian fighter jets and heavy-artillery units pounded rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs on Saturday, in what activists described as the fiercest push to take full control of the city in more than a year.
The bombardment of districts including al-Qusoor, Khalidiya, Jouret al-Shiya and the ancient Old City began about 9 a.m. and continued for three hours before the army deployed ground troops, activists said.
The government has been pressing a campaign against pockets of resistance in central Syria since taking control earlier this month of the town of Qusair, which lies between Homs and the Lebanese border. Once known as the capital of the revolution for its early role in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Homs is divided between government-controlled and rebel-held areas, which have been under siege for the past year.
“It’s the worst day since the beginning of the siege,” said Abu Rami, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission and a resident of al-Qusoor who uses a pseudonym. “Civilians can’t leave. We are trapped.”
Abu Rami said five airstrikes had accompanied heavy shelling from tanks Saturday morning before the army and militiamen from the paramilitary National Defense Forces mounted an offensive.
Video footage posted online Saturday showed thick plumes of smoke rising over the city to the sound of explosions.
The official state news agency said that the army pursued “armed terrorist groups” in the Khalidya district to “restore stability,” while state television said the government was “making great progress.”
However, Abu Rami said rebels had repelled the push by government forces, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were reports that rebels had destroyed an advancing army tank. It also said that a fire had broken out at the 13th-century Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque, on the edge of Khalidiya. No casualties were reported.
Since their win in Qusair, backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Syrian government forces have made slow but steady gains in the region, control of which would secure a swath of land linking the capital, Damascus, to the country’s ports on the Mediterranean.
To the north in Aleppo, however, rebels have said they have held off a long-touted assault by the government’s troops, launching their own offensives instead, while to the south, in Daraa, they captured an army checkpoint on Friday after a two-week siege.
Shiite Hezbollah’s involvement in the Qusair battle has underscored the war’s sectarian dimension and dragged in neighboring Lebanon, where the southern city of Sidon was engulfed by clashes last week that killed 18 soldiers.
The fighting, which followed claims by a controversial Sunni cleric that the army acts in the interests of Hezbollah, has embroiled the Lebanese armed forces in controversy, which looked to be compounded Saturday by the circulation of a video purporting to show a Lebanese army unit detained by Free Syrian Army fighters in Syria.
The Lebanese army said the video was circulated “as part of a slanderous campaign against the army” since the clashes in Sidon. It said the incident occurred in September when an army unit was ambushed by members of the Free Syrian Army near the town of Aarsal, on the Lebanese side of the border.