Syrian troops 'tighten grip on Homs'

Syrian troops 'tighten grip on Homs'

Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants are tightening their grip on a key rebel district in central Syria, activists say.

The military moves came a day after they expelled rebels from a 13th century landmark mosque they controlled for more than a year.

State-run Syrian TV broadcast live coverage from Khaldiyeh, an embattled northern neighbourhood in Homs, where the army has been advancing. Video showed extensive destruction. Activists said most of the buildings in the mainly residential district were no longer fit to live in.

Elsewhere, an opposition group said the death toll from nearly two weeks of clashes between al Qaida-linked fighters and Kurdish militiamen in northeastern Syria stands at 120. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead include 79 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra, both al Qaida-affiliated rebel groups. The group monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists on the ground,

This latest round of fighting flared in Ras al-Ayn on July 6 in the predominantly Kurdish Hassakeh province in the north, near the Turkish border. Kurdish gunmen are fighting to expel the militants, whom they see as a threat.

After capturing the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanon border last month, government troops launched an offensive on rebel-held areas in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, late in June. They have been pushing into Khaldiyeh and other neighbourhoods in the Old City that have been under opposition control since 2011.

An unidentified Syrian army commander standing before a destroyed building in Khaldiyeh told state TV that the military expected to “liberate” the last part of Khaldiyeh within the next two days.

Syrian government forces captured the ancient Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in Khaldiyeh yesterday. Syrian TV aired a report with video from inside the mosque, showing heavy damage.

The mosque, famous for its nine domes and two minarets, has been a symbol for rebels in the city that is known as “the capital of the revolution.” On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam.

The Observatory and other activists said government troops are backed by members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside regime forces in their assault on rebel-held territory in the central region.

In addition to its symbolic value, Homs is a geographic lynchpin in Syria. The main highway from Damascus to the north and the coast, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, runs through Homs.

Also today, Syria’s main exiled opposition group condemned the reported execution of scores of government soldiers by rebels in a northern Syrian village several days ago.

The Syrian National Coalition made up of exiled opposition leaders said in a statement that it was forming a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident in Khan al-Assal. Syrian activists say rebels killed 150 government soldiers, some after they surrendered in the village outside Aleppo, the country’s largest city.

The state media said that 123 “civilians and military personnel” were killed in a “massacre” and others were still missing.

“Those involved in such crimes will be held accountable,” the Coalition statement said.

The Coalition said initial reports showed “armed groups” not affiliated with the main rebel coalition were involved. It did not give details, but the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra says its fighters participated in the battle.

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