DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrian government troops gained ground in clashes Friday in two rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, edging closer to a historic mosque and closing in on opposition fighters in the area, state TV and activists said.
The advance came amid a wide offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces, launched in late June, to try to recapture rebel areas in Homs, Syria's third largest city.
With about 1 million residents, Homs lies along a main artery linking the capital, Damascus, with regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast to the west. It has played a key role in the country's civil war, now in its third year, and the struggle for control of Homs has also underscored the conflict's increasingly sectarian undertones.
Activists, who consider Homs "the capital of the revolution," say the regime wants to capture the entire city to include it in a future Alawite state — stretching from Homs to the coast — where Assad could possibly make his last stand. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels fighting to topple his regime are Sunnis.
In recent weeks, Assad's troops have captured several nearby rebel-held areas, including the towns of Qusair and Talkalkh near the border with Lebanon.
State TV said Friday that troops advanced in Homs' northern neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and Jouret el-Shayah.
The report said the government forces were getting close to Khaldiyeh's 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, famous for its nine domes and two minarets. On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam, inside it.
An activist in the city who only identified himself as Abu Bilal for fear of government reprisals said the troops were now about 50 meters (yards) from the mosque, which has been badly damaged in recent fighting. "Resistance cannot stand up to tanks, warplanes and mortars," Abu Bilal said, speaking from the city via Skype.
In Damascus, officials said pro-government troops were advancing in battles with rebel forces in the now mostly empty Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. Clashes in the camp, which has mostly been under rebel control since last year, broke out earlier this week.
Since the start of the unrest, Syria's half-million Palestinians have struggled to remain on the sidelines but many were eventually split between pro-and anti-Assad groups. In particular, young Palestinian refugees joined the rebels in the fight against Assad's regime.
Thousands of the camp's residents have fled to escape the fighting and have gone to other areas in Syria or to neighboring Lebanon.
Anwar Raja, a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is pro-Assad, said Friday that the Palestinians who are fighting with government forces want to "cleanse the camp of terrorists' gangs" and bring back its residents.
Khaled Abdul-Majid of the Popular Struggle Front, another pro-government faction, said the Palestinian fighters, known as Palestinian Popular Committees have captured nearly a third of the mostly empty camp.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian warplanes bombed an office of the main al-Qaida-linked rebel group in the northern city of Aleppo.
The strike late Thursday at the local headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant killed six members of the jihadi group, said the Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.