Syrian rebels pushing back into Baba Amr in Homs, scene of heavy shelling


McClatchy Newspapers

Rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad have launched an offensive to recapture the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs, an area they lost to government forces in February after a 26-day siege that trapped civilians, left hundreds dead and destroyed scores of buildings.

The neighborhood has symbolic and strategic importance as rebel forces, with new supplies of weapons and ammunition, push the Syrian army from key portions of central and northern Syria, rebels say.

“Baba Amr is important for the media because Bashar Assad visited this neighborhood” in March after loyalist forces seized it, said Malek, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army who’s facilitating the movement of fighters, weapons and supplies to Baba Amr. He declined to use his full name for fear of Syrian government reprisals.

Malek called the neighborhood “the entrance to the city” and said it controlled “the route for sending weapons and fighters to other parts of Homs,” Syria’s third largest city.

The battle for Baba Amr captured international attention in February when the Syrian military began a weeks-long assault on the area. At the time, news accounts generally portrayed the fighting as a one-sided artillery barrage by government forces on a residential neighborhood, though the reality was somewhat more nuanced: As many as 1,000 rebel fighters had taken control of the area and were resisting government efforts to push them out.

An American journalist working for The Times of London newspaper, Marie Colvin, and a French photographer, Remi Ochlik, were killed when Syrian artillery hit the rebel press center they were in. A few days later, rebels abandoned the neighborhood, saying they were running low on ammunition. Many escaped by swimming across the Orontes River.

But the rebels never left the city of Homs entirely and in the months since, they’ve strengthened their positions, as new supplies arrived and rebels who’d left returned.

Two days ago, the rebels drove hundreds of Syrian soldiers from a pair of bases in Baba Amr, rebels reported.

The rebel successes have prompted increasingly violent government responses, with the military using attack helicopters in Homs for the first time, residents of the city report. Free Syria Army supporters said the rebels also had repelled repeated attempts by troops and pro-government militias to enter neighborhoods in Old Homs in recent weeks.

As fighting has spread in Homs, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has been trying to evacuate civilians who remain in the area. An ICRC representative said Wednesday that a temporary cease-fire had been brokered in Homs and that the committee was waiting to evacuate civilians. Despite the agreement, fighting continued Wednesday evening.

“There are civilians in Jourat al Shiah and Al Hamidya neighborhoods particularly,” said Saif al Arabi, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council in Homs. “Until now they had been relatively safe, but the people are now trapped by shelling.”

Among the groups engaged in the fight for Baba Amr was the Farouq Brigade, one of the largest groups fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Many Farouq Brigade fighters had fled Baba Amr in February and had taken up positions in the nearby city of Qusayr in April, when a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was supposed to go into effect.

Anti-government activists also reported fierce fighting and shelling in other parts of the country, particularly in northwest Syria, where fighting has flared recently near Latakia, on the Mediterranean Coast. The area previously had been relatively quiet.

Activists also said that more than 60 people had been killed in the last week in Douma, a suburb of Damascus that has also remained a locus of support for the rebels and their operations despite a heavy military presence.

According to Syrian human rights activists, more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. Civilian casualties have dropped, however, in months since the U.N. cease-fire went into effect, with 1,344 deaths reported in May by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, down from a peak of 2,101 in March. According to the London-based group, which tracks casualties, 1,035 people have been killed so far this month.

According to the Syrian government news agency SANA, rebels have killed 441 Syrian soldiers and security forces this month, making June a record month for government casualties. Last month, SANA reported 404 deaths among security forces, the previous monthly high.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @davidjenders

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