BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian rebels engaged in fierce battles with the army in the central city of Homs on Saturday, where regime forces are trying to wipe out pockets of resistance, a rights group and the state news agency said.
There was intense combat in the districts of Bab Hud and Bab al-Turkman of Homs city, which is referred to by anti-regime activists as “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.
An unknown number of rebels and soldiers were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The state news agency SANA said that in Bab Hud, the army killed and wounded several “terrorists,” the regime’s term for the armed rebels.
Clashes also raged in the rebel-held village of Deir al-Ful in Homs province, as the army tried to seize it from insurgents.
The province is Syria’s largest and most strategic. It borders Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, as well as Damascus province, and runs across the breadth of the country, cutting it in half.
The rebels meanwhile blocked army reinforcements advancing towards the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan which has been under rebel control, an AFP journalist said.
In its bid to retake the town, located in northwest Syria on the road from Damascus to the embattled city of Aleppo, the army used warplanes to bombard Maaret al-Numan, killing at least two civilians and destroying three homes.
Some 40 military vehicles, including 10 tanks, four-wheel-drive vehicles with mounted machineguns and buses loaded with troops were forced to stop 10 kilometres (six miles) south of the town, rebel fighters told AFP.
The rebel Free Syrian Army used anti-tank rockets and improvised explosives to block the army’s progress.
The FSA seized control of Maaret al-Numan on Tuesday, pushing the army out into two military bases on its outskirts, and blocking the arrival of new reinforcements to Aleppo.
“The rebels tried again to storm the Wadi Deif army base (on Saturday) … when they were bombarded by a MiG fighter jet,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Fierce machinegun battles raged near the base.
Regime forces have been launching rockets daily from the two bases on the outskirts, focusing their fire mainly around an underground emergency field hospital.
On Saturday, army shelling injured 20 rebel fighters, the Observatory said.
Some 125,000 people once lived in Maaret al-Numan and its outskirts but most have fled because of the violence. Alongside the rebels, only a few elderly men remain in the town, guarding homes and shops.
Rebel fighters decorate their motorbikes and the few cars they have with the colours of the Syrian independence flag, which has come to symbolise the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Experts say the Syrian army has been worn down by an increase in the number of battlefronts and rebel attacks that have cut major supply routes and undermined the regime’s military superiority.
The army relies mainly on its monopoly on air power to slow the progress of the insurgency.
“The army can try and take back the town from rebel hands temporarily, but it’s clear that it can no longer keep control of it,” said the Observatory’s Abdel Rahman. “The army is genuinely losing control in the north.”
Rebels staged a massive assault on Aleppo, Syria’s traditional commercial hub, on July 20, after they had slowly built up a strong presence in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo, both neighbouring Turkey.
Both the army and rebels have since kept up a continuous flow of reinforcements into Aleppo city, as they bid to take full control.
“There are thousands of rebel fighters all across the northern belt of Syria, mainly in Idlib and Aleppo, and the army has been unable to do much about that,” said Abdel Rahman.
Syrian rebels shot down a fighter jet in the northern province of Aleppo on Saturday, a monitoring group and a military defector said.
“The rebels shot down the fighter jet in the west of Aleppo province, where fierce battles are taking place,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. “The jet was bombarding the village of Khan al-Asal.”
A defected military officer in the province confirmed the reports, adding that the MiG jet was shot down some 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Aleppo.
Amateur video shot by activists and distributed by the Observatory showed groups of people gathering around a pile of embers, and smoke rising from the scene, as men fired their weapons into the air in celebration.
It also showed the tail of a fixed-wing aircraft, blackened by fire and broken off from the body of the plane.
“God is greatest,” people shouted.
“People celebrate when planes are shot down because they are used to bombard civilian areas,” said Abdel Rahman.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rebuked the UN Security Council for inaction over Syria on Saturday, saying the world body was repeating mistakes that led to massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Turkey is increasingly entangled after intercepting a Syrian airliner carrying what it said were Russian-made munitions for the Syrian army, infuriating Moscow and Damascus. It has led calls for intervention, including no-fly zones enforced by foreign aircraft to stop deadly air raids by Assad’s forces.
But there is little chance of UN support for robust action. China insists any solution to Syria’s crisis must come from within while Russia has said many Syrians still support Assad. Western nations meanwhile are loath to commit to any military action that could touch off a regional sectarian war.
“The UN Security Council has not intervened in the human tragedy that has been going on in Syria for 20 months, despite all our efforts,” Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul attended by leaders including Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby. “There’s an attitude that encourages, gives the green light to Assad to kill tens or hundreds of people every day.”
The bloodshed has worsened markedly in the past two months although neither side has been able to gain a distinct advantage, with government forces relying heavily on air power and artillery to batter the rebels.
Combat has been reported nationwide but the crucial strategic battles are being fought in an arc through western Syria, where most of the population lives.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Libya’s wartime rebel Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril to discuss Syria on the sidelines of the Istanbul conference.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this week Brahimi would visit Syria soon to try to persuade Assad to call an immediate ceasefire.
The UN Security Council, divided between Western powers on one side and Russia and China on the other, has proved helpless in halting a conflict which has spiralled into civil war and killed more than 30,000 people.
Erdogan said a system which allowed one or two nations to block intervention in such a grave humanitarian crisis was inherently unjust, and that Syria would go down in history as a UN failure much like Bosnia in the 1990s.
“How sad is that the United Nations is as helpless today as it was 20 years ago when it watched the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in the Balkans, Bosnia and Srebrenica,” Erdogan told the Istanbul conference.
The July 1995 massacre in Srebrenica was the worst on European soil since World War Two, in which Dutch UN peacekeepers abandoned what had been designated a UN safe haven to advancing Bosnian Serb forces, who then killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys and bulldozed their corpses into pits.
Turkish officials had expressed hope they might be able to persuade Moscow, which sold Syria $1 billion of arms last year, to soften its opposition at the Security Council and that if it succeeded, China would follow suit.
But relations between Ankara and Moscow sank to a new low on Wednesday after Turkey forced down a passenger jet flying from Moscow and publicly accused Russia of ferrying military equipment to Assad’s forces.
Russia has said there were no weapons on the plane and that it was carrying a legal shipment of radar equipment.
The United States has denounced Russia’s policy of aiding the Syrian regime as “morally bankrupt,” as tensions between Damascus and Ankara escalate over cargo seized from a Syrian passenger plane.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to disclose to reporters what exactly had been in the cargo seized in Turkey on Wednesday, but said “we have no doubt that this was serious military equipment,” aimed at bolstering the Syrian regime.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, however, that the Syrian Air plane intercepted by Turkey on a flight from Moscow to Damascus was carrying a cargo of dual-purpose radar equipment, and insisted Russia did not violate any laws.
“This cargo is electrical technical equipment for radar stations, this is dual-purpose equipment, but is not forbidden by any international conventions,” Lavrov said.
Nuland acknowledged that Russia had not violated any embargo on Syrian Assad and his government, but said “the policy’s still morally bankrupt”.
“Everybody else on the Security Council is doing what it can unilaterally to ensure that the Assad regime is not getting support from the outside,” she said in Washington.
“We have been saying for almost a year now, that no responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime.”
Source: Arab Times