Syrian forces advance into rebel-held part of Homs

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces advanced into the rebel-held Khalidiya district in the central city of Homs on Monday for the first time in months, rebels in the neighborhood said.

Government forces fighting rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad have been bombarding 12 districts of the besieged city for four days.

“For the first time in months the Assad army has entered these areas in Khalidiya,” a fighter told Reuters by Skype. “They have occupied buildings that we were stationed in and we had to evacuate.”

Rebels said troops had opened several fronts simultaneously and were attacking rebels in Khalidiya, Bab Houd, Jouret al-Shiyah and Qusour. The Syrian army was also launching attacks on other towns in the province including Qusair, where state media said the government had inflicted heavy losses on the rebels.

Assad has sent troops, tanks and warplanes to crush an 18-month-old revolt that has turned into a civil war. It pits rebels who are mostly from the Sunni majority against a political and security establishment dominated by Alawites, members of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam to which Assad belongs.

As in other provinces, the revolt in Homs began as peaceful protests, which were met with force by Assad’s troops. Residents of Sunni districts then took up arms and fought to take control of several areas of the city.

Last week the government sent reinforcements to Homs, where its forces have stopped food and aid from reaching besieged rebel-held areas such as Khalidiya.

“We saw them bringing tanks and troops, we knew they were going to increase their attacks, but we did not expect them to advance,” another fighter said.

The troops flattened several buildings where the rebels were taking cover, forcing them to retreat. “We became exposed, the buildings were like the wall between us but they brought them down and suddenly we were exposed.”

“We had to retreat and they advanced.”

Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Kevin Liffey