Warplanes and artillery batter former Syrian rebel stronghold

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Syrian forces have pounded the central city of Homs, subjecting the former rebel stronghold to its worst bombardment in months, activists said.

The bombardment by tanks and mortars as well as aircraft came alongside a push by government forces on another front, the embattled northern city of Aleppo.

The stepped-up pace of government attacks on Syrian cities suggests the Damascus regime’s forces have not been distracted by escalating tensions with its northern neighbour, Turkey.

Ankara’s parliament authorised cross-border military operations on Thursday, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians on Turkish territory the day before, and yesterday, Turkish troops were deployed along the country’s border with Syria, patrolling on foot and in armoured personnel vehicles.

Homs has been one of the flashpoints of the 18-month-old uprising against president Bashar 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 yesterday’s attack was the worst the city had 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 neighbourhood.

“Around dawn, the regime went crazy and started shelling hysterically,” a Homs-based activist known as Abu Rami told reporters. “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 said the government forces were mainly firing rockets and heavy mortars at the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Old Homs, Khaldiya, Qusour and Jouret el-Shayah. Abu Rami also said the regime forces had 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 most residents who still lived in rebel-held areas around the city were 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 the city for months, leaving large swathes in ruins by April. Since then the 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 the Syrian military has been shelling the neighbourhood of Sakhour in Aleppo as government forces 
battle rebels in the country’s largest city.

State-run Syrian TV said 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.

In Turkey, residents in the border town of Akcakale, where a Syrian shell landed on Wednesday, killing five civilians, fear more violence.

Halil Deniz, who lives in Oncul where terrified Akcakale residents fled, said he still fears for his life.

“We do not know if we will live or die,” Mr Deniz said. “Children go to other villages in the evenings, and return back when the next day dawns.”

Ahmet Sabritur, who lives in Akcakale, added: “Our store owners, our citizens and our children are all very concerned. We did not sleep until morning.”