DAMASCUS, Syria – Government troops captured a neighborhood Monday in the embattled city of Homs that has been a rebel stronghold since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, dealing another blow to beleaguered opposition forces in the center of the country, according to the state media.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, however, denied that regime forces had seized all of the district of Khaldiyeh, saying there was still scattered fighting in southern areas of the neighborhood.
Syrian TV aired footage from the neighborhood, showing troops roaming deserted streets and waving flags in front of shell-scarred buildings. Two opposition activists in the area who could normally be contacted via Skype were offline Monday.
Government troops launched a sweeping offensive to retake rebel-held areas of Homs, Syria's third-largest city, a month ago. Even if small pockets of resistance remain, the fall of Khaldiyeh to regime troops appeared to be a foregone conclusion, and its capture would be the second major setback to rebels in central Syria in as many months.
In early June, regime forces captured the strategic town of Qusair in Homs province near the border with Lebanon. Troops have also captured the town of Talkalakh, another border town in the province.
The province of Homs is Syria's largest, and runs from the Lebanese frontier in the west all the way to the border with Iraq and Jordan in the east. The city of Homs holds strategic value because it serves as a crossroads: the main highway from Damascus to the north as well as the coastal region, which is a stronghold of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, runs through Homs.
Khaldiyeh had a population of about 80,000 but only some 2,000 remain there today as residents fled the violence, activists say. The heavy fighting over the past two years has caused extensive damage, with some buildings reduced to rubble.
In a report on Monday, Syrian state TV said "the Syrian army has restored security and stability in the whole neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in Homs."
A Syrian TV reporter embedded with troops in the area gave a live report standing in front of damaged buildings. He interviewed an army officer who said the troops fought a tough battle against rebels who mined buildings and fought from underground tunnels.
"As of this morning, our armed forces in cooperation with the (pro-government paramilitary) National Defense Forces have taken control of Khaldiyeh and are now cleansing the neighborhood," said the officer, surrounded by about a dozen soldiers and plainclothes security agents.
"The fate of terrorists will be under our feet," he said, claiming that all Homs will be soon "cleansed" of rebels.
The Observatory has said that troops are backed by members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group. Hezbollah, which did not acknowledge whether its members are fighting in Khaldiyeh, played a major role in a battle last month in Qusair, outside Homs, and lost scores of men there.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said government troops have captured most of the neighborhood apart from some fighting on its southern areas.
Another opposition activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the battle in Khaldiyeh "is almost over." He acknowledged that troops are almost in full control of the area.
In the northern city of Aleppo, several rebel factions including the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, attacked army posts in two neighborhoods in a an offensive titled "amputating infidels" the Observatory said.
It said rebels captured several buildings in the neighborhoods of Dahret Abed Rabbo and Lairamoun, and that eight government soldiers were killed.
Rebels have been on the offensive in Aleppo province and captured last week the strategic town of Khan el-Assal. Activists and state media said score of troops were killed there after their capture. The Western-backed Syrian National Council condemned the killings.
In the southern region of Quneitra, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, government troops captured the town of Mashara on Sunday night after intense fighting, the Observatory said.