Syrians, Hezbollah set to
retake key Homs rebel area

Shelling in Homs (AFP/Shaam News Network)

Government forces bolstered by Lebanese Shiite militiamen were preparing on Sunday to retake the largest rebel-held district of Syria's third city Homs, a watchdog and state media said.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops now controlled most of Khaldiyeh and were battling insurgents on its outskirts after a month-long offensive.


The complete fall of Homs, dubbed by rebels "the capital of the revolution" against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, would be a major government victory as it straddles a key route linking Damascus to the coast.


State television said the army now controlled most of the district and broadcast footage of the destruction, including rubble-strewn streets and bodies it reported were of fighters.


An officer told the channel: "Only the northern sector is left [controlled by rebels] and that will be liberated within 24 hours."


Some seven neighborhoods in the Old City also remain in rebel hands, but troops appear determined to dislodge them as they did in Qusayr in June.


They seized that key town in Homs province with the help of fighters from Lebanon's powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.


"The army and Hezbollah control a major part of Khaldiyeh after having gained ground [over the past 24 hours] and fighting is now concentrated on the northern and southern outskirts of the district," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.


Al Mayadeen, a Beirut-based satellite television channel considered close to the Damascus government, broadcast footage of Khaldiyeh showing massive destruction.


It also showed the interior of the famed Khaled bin Walid mosque which troops seized on Saturday.


The ancient place of worship noted for its Ottoman and Mameluk architectural style is where Khaled bin Walid, a prominent Arab warrior and companion of the Prophet Mohammed, is said to be buried.


The mosque was a focal point of the uprising now in its third year, and had been the launch-pad for several anti-government demonstrations.


Bin Walid's mausoleum has been destroyed in a rocket attack, the Observatory and militants said.


Hezbollah, the strongest military force in Lebanon and whose military wing has been blacklisted by the European Union as a terrorist group, also helped the army retake Qusayr.


It too is strategic, lying on the border with Lebanon and linking Damascus to the coastal stronghold of Assad's minority Alawite community.


Meanwhile, the opposition National Coalition condemned the reported "collective execution" by rebels of prisoners and said it had created a commission of inquiry.


At least 150 Syrian regime forces died in fighting for control of Khan al-Assal in the northern Aleppo province, the Observatory said on Friday.


It said more than 50 of those killed were executed by rebels after Khan al-Assal fell on Monday.


"The Coalition condemns this act, and announces the creation of a commission of inquiry, stressing the need to take proceedings against those whose implication in the crime is proven," it said in a statement.


Both sides have also traded accusations that chemical weapons used in earlier fierce fighting at Khan al-Assal in March killed about 30 people.


A spokeswoman for UN chief Ban Ki-moon said late on Saturday he would review an accord struck with Syria on investigating the use of chemical weapons before any details are announced.


Ban will meet one of the two envoys who struck the accord in New York on Monday, she told AFP.


A joint statement on Friday said agreement had been reached "on the way forward" in the probe, following a visit to Damascus by Ake Sellstrom, head of the UN inspectors, and Angela Kane, the UN disarmament envoy.


The UN says the 28-month-old civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people and created millions of refugees.

smoke billowing from the central Syrian city of Homs after reported shelling by government forces. (AFP/Shaam News Network)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops now controlled most of Khaldiyeh where they seized an ancient mosque and concentrated on fighting insurgents on the outskirts of the district.