BEIRUT — Syrian warplanes and artillery pounded on Friday the central city of Homs, subjecting the former rebel stronghold to its worst bombardment in months, activists said.
The reported bombardment by tanks and mortars as well as aircraft comes alongside a push by government force on another front, the embattled northern city of Aleppo.
The stepped-up pace of government attacks on Syrian cities suggests that the Damascus regime’s forces have not been distracted by escalating tensions with its northern neighbor, Turkey. Ankara’s parliament on Thursday authorized cross-border military operations after a Syrian shell killed five civilians on Turkish territory the day before.
Homs has been one of the flashpoints of the 18-month old uprising against Assad’s regime. The focus of fighting has shifted to other areas in recent months, including Aleppo, since a government offensive against rebel strongholds in Homs ended in April.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday’s attack is the worst the city has seen in five months. The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said tanks and mortars as well as aircraft had bombarded the city’s Khaldiya neighborhood.
“Around dawn, the regime went crazy and started shelling hysterically,” a Homs-based activist known as Abu Rami told The Associated Press via Skype on Friday. “An average of five rockets a minute are falling.” Abu Rami was speaking from the central rebel-held old quarter known as Old Homs. He asked to be identified by his nickname for fear of regime reprisal.
He said the government forces are mainly firing rockets and heavy mortars at the rebel-held neighborhoods of Old Homs, Khaldiya, Qusour and Jouret el-Shayah. Abu Rami also said the regime forces have been shelling villages around Homs and the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the city.
He said there were no immediate reports of casualties, adding that most residents who still live in rebel-held areas around the city are hiding in shelters.
Activists say most government forces near Homs are stationed outside the town — a common pattern in rebel strongholds.
Homs is Syria’s third largest city. Regime forces pounded parts of Homs for months, leaving large swaths of the city in ruins by April. Since then level of violence has dropped, although gun battles still frequently break out.
The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and gradually morphed into a bloody civil war, killing more than 30,000 people, according to activists.
The Observatory also said Syrian military has been shelling the neighborhood of Sakhour in Aleppo as government forces battle rebels in the country’s largest city.
State-run Syrian TV said that government forces “cleansed Sakhour of terrorists and mercenaries.”
Syria’s government has always blamed the uprising on what it calls foreign terrorists, despite months of peaceful protests that turned violent after repeated attacks by security forces. The transformation of the conflict into an open war has given an opportunity to foreign fighters and extremists, analysts say.