BEIRUT: Backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, Syrian troops unleashed some of the civil war’s heaviest bombardments on the central city of Homs on Friday, pounding opposition-held areas with artillery and airstrikes for the sixth day in a row, activists said.
In Geneva, the U.N. agency for human rights said it is “extremely concerned about the human rights and humanitarian impact” of the government offensive in Syria’s third largest city.
Homs is the latest target of a series of government offensives aimed at driving rebels out of areas they control.
A city of about 1 million people, it has been an opposition stronghold since the early days of the uprising against President Bashar Assad. Mass Arab Spring-inspired protests there, starting in early 2011, brought repeated army offensives onto the city. Hundreds were killed and thousands driven from their homes.
The government now controls much of Homs, though several neighborhoods in the center are still opposition strongholds. Building on its capture of the strategic town of Qusair between the Lebanese border and Homs last month, the army launched an offensive June 29, battling rebels in the old part of Homs and the northern district of Khaldiyeh, where fighters are entrenched.
“It appears the regime wants to take Khaldiyeh, no matter what the price is,” said Tarek Badrakhan, who is based in Khaldiyeh. He said troops are focused on taking the district because from there, they could cut off rebel units in their other strongholds of Old Homs and the areas of Jouret el-Shayah and Qusour. Badrakhan was speaking to the Associated Press via Skype.
He said there were two airstrikes on Khaldiyeh early Friday. Army troops, pro-government militiamen and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group are shelling Khaldiyeh from three sides with rockets, tank and mortars shells. The activist said government forces are facing strong resistance from the rebels and have not advanced far in the six-day battle.
Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in helping Syrian troops capture Qusair last month. The group has not confirmed its troops were fighting in Homs, as the activists claim, and the reports could not be independently verified.