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Syrian army launches Homs offensive

Syrian fighter jets and heavy-artillery units pounded rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs yesterday, 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 the city of 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 yesterday morning before the army and militiamen from the paramilitary National Defense Forces, mounted an offensive.

Video footage posted online yesterday 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 in order 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.

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