DAMASCUS – The Syrian regime on Monday said the army recaptured a rebel district of Homs, a key symbol of the country’s revolt, after a relentless one-month offensive.
Activists on the ground said the government troops now controlled 90 percent of Khaldiyeh neighborhood.
The takeover is the second military success for President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Homs province in two months, after troops took over the former rebel bastion of Qusayr in June.
The full recapture of Homs, dubbed by rebels “the capital of the revolution,” would be a strategic win for the regime.
The city straddles a route linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast and the Alawite hinterland of Assad’s minority community.
“The armed forces have restored security and stability across the neighborhood of Khaldiyeh,” one of the largest rebel bastions in the central city, state television said.
The army, backed by fighters from Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militant group, launched the assault on Khaldiyeh a month ago bolstered by the capture in June, also with Hezbollah help, of the Homs province town of Qusayr.
Several neighbourhoods in the Old City remain in rebel hands, but troops, who have a foothold in that part of town too, appear determined to dislodge them.
“The capture of Khaldiyeh will make it easier (for the army) to retake the Old City and other (rebel) districts like Qussur,” Homs-based activist Mahmud Al-Lowz said via the Internet.
“If Homs city falls, the north of Syria will be cut off from the south,” he added.
An army officer, interview on state television, said regime forces hope to “cleanse the whole of Syria” after the Khaldiyeh victory.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fierce early morning battles preceded the recapture of Khaldiyeh, calling the fighting “the most violent since the offensive was launched.”
The neighborhood had endured near-daily air and artillery bombardments and a suffocating siege that prevented not only weapons but also food and medical supplies from being brought in.
“The (rebel) retreat is the result of the heavy air and artillery bombardment,” Homs-based activist Abu Rami said by Internet, adding that the army now controls “90 percent” of Khaldiyeh.
“Khaldiyeh may have fallen, but Homs has not.
“We have lost this round, but we haven’t lost the war... We hold the international community and the Syrian opposition responsible for what is happening in Homs,” he said.
It is the most important military victory for the regime in Homs since the March 2012 capture of Baba Amr district, another symbol of the rebellion, following an offensive that killed hundreds.
As the army advanced in Khaldiyeh, warplanes struck the Bab Hud neighborhood of the Old City, just to the south, the Britain-based Observatory said.
The opposition National Coalition has dismissed the army’s advances in Khaldiyeh as “fictitious victories” and accused the regime of dumping “tonnes of bombs” on the area.
The army on Saturday seized the historic Khaled Bin Walid Mosque, which was a focal point of the uprising now in its third year.
Facing army advances in Homs, the rebels last week seized after months of fighting the key Khan Al-Assal bastion in the northern province of Aleppo, while making advances in the southern province of Daraa near the Jordan border.
As UN efforts to convene a Russian- and US-backed peace conference have faltered, Assad’s regime has pressed its offensives mainly around central Syria and Damascus.
The UN says the 28-month-old civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Meanwhile, the head of Turkey’s main Kurdish party has welcomed contacts between the Ankara government and Syria’s Kurds, saying it could step up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and help change the course of the civil war,
Turkish intelligence officers met in Istanbul last week with Saleh Muslim, head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group whose militias have been fighting for control of parts of Syria’s north near the Turkish border.
The meeting followed Muslim’s declaration that Kurdish groups would set up an independent council to run Kurdish areas of Syria until the war ends. Ankara fears that kind of autonomy could rekindle separatist sentiment among its own, much larger Kurdish population as it seeks to end a 30-year-old insurgency.
“Saleh Muslim’s visit to Istanbul is a concrete sign that Turkey is moving towards changing a policy that sees Kurds as a menace,” Selahattin Demirtas, head of parliament’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told Reuters in an interview. – Agencies