Syrian state forces backed by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah hammered the central city of Homs on Friday, activists said, sparking concern from United Nations officials over thousands of civilians trapped in the city.
President Bashar Assad's forces have been using heavy air raids and artillery strikes to push their offensive around the capital and the strategically located Homs, which spans central Syria's eastern and western international borders.
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Syria's war has killed more than 100,000 people, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says. The two-year revolt began as peaceful protests but, under a fierce security force crackdown, it degenerated into civil war.
Destruction in Homs (Photo: AP)
Homs city was the epicenter of the insurgency, and is the focal point of a new push by Assad's forces.
Assad is trying to cement control of a belt of territory between his seat of power in Damascus and his stronghold on Syria's Mediterranean coast, a move which could sever the north and south of the country
where rebels have a foothold.
Video uploaded by activist groups in Homs showed fires blazing from destroyed buildings and grey smoke rolling down streets torn up by the clashes. Fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns from battered apartment blocks.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was "extremely concerned" about the offensive, launched by Assad's forces on June 28.
Assad aided by Hezbollah (Photo: Reuters)
"The number of civilians currently trapped due to the heavy fighting in and around Homs is believed to be between 2,500 and 4,000 people," chief spokesman Rupert Colville said.
"We call upon all parties to respect their obligations under international law, avoid civilian casualties and allow trapped civilians to leave without fear of persecution or violence."
Colville also called on fighters to provide unfettered access to humanitarian groups in the area. Activists in Homs say there are severe shortages of food, water, medicine, electricity and fuel in the besieged areas.
Some opposition sources reported small advances for Assad's forces, but others said the street-by-street battles meant the overall balance of power was unchanged after more than a week.
Outside the city, Assad's forces fired on the nearby town of al-Hosn, a hillside rebel stronghold famous for its ancient crusader fortress, the Crac des Chevaliers. Rebels have been holed up for months in the massive castle, once a perfectly preserved UNESCO World Heritage site.
Residents nearby said pro-Assad militias set fire to the forests surrounding the town, hoping to destroy potential cover for fighters trying to bring in supplies.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a Syrian army ammunition dump was exploded by rockets, in the suburbs of the city of Lattakia in the country's northwest.
An army source told the Hezbollah's al-Manar network that the source of the rockets was mostly likely the warzones in the city's northern suburb.
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