Syrian army continues to advance on Homs old city

State TV claims strategic gains in offensive that may put at risk truce talks

A portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on a street in Homs, Syria. In February, more than 1,400 residents of the old city, including a substantial number of fighters seeking amnesty, were evacuated under UN auspices. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

A portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on a street in Homs, Syria. In February, more than 1,400 residents of the old city, including a substantial number of fighters seeking amnesty, were evacuated under UN auspices. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Thu, Apr 17, 2014, 01:00

Loud explosions echoed across Damascus as night fell on the eve of Syria’s national day yesterday, disrupting a period of relative quiet in the capital.

The heavy shelling took place as Syrian troops and allied militiamen continued operations in the insurgent-held old city of Homs, advancing on several axes towards the souqs.

State television said the army and national defence forces had “achieved key successes” in the area by recapturing the strategic Homs district of al-Khalidiya, intercepting the main supply line to insurgents holed up in the area.

In February, more than 1,400 residents of the old city, including a substantial number of fighters seeking amnesty, were evacuated under UN auspices. According to estimates by Homs residents and the UN, about 1,300 people remain in the besieged sector; some are regular rebel fighters, while the majority are associated with insurgent groups including al- Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. The insurgent fighters are Syrians rather than foreign jihadis.


Talks at risk
The Homs offensive could put at risk truce negotiations involving Syrian reconciliation minister Ali Haidar, Homs governor Talal al-Barazi, the leaders of four insurgent groups in the besieged old city and a similar number in the al-Waar quarter, where some 350,000 people live. The advance by government forces into the old city, besieged for more than two years, follows a succession of military victories across the country and could strengthen figures in the government who prefer a purely military solution over the truce-and-reconciliation effort backed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He has said the conflict has reached a “turning point” due to local offensives that have given the government control over large stretches of territory between Homs and Damascus and along the Lebanese frontier.

The insurgent rout in regions around Damascus and the west of the country has taken place in spite of reports that some opposition fighters have been provided with US-manufactured Tow anti-tank weapons.

US national security spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the US was “committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition”, but did not mention the type of aid granted.

In the south, Jordanian military aircraft destroyed insurgent vehicles mounted with machine guns trying to cross its border into Syria. Jordanian government spokesman Mohamed al-Momani said Amman was “worried about . . . infiltration . . . and reports [of] armed groups operating close to the border in the absence of security there”.