Syrian troops consolidating gains in key district in central Homs region

Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants were consolidating their control over a key rebel district in central Syria Sunday, activists said.

The military moves came a day after they expelled rebels from a 13th century landmark mosque they controlled for more than a year.

State-run Syrian TV broadcast live coverage from Khaldiyeh, an embattled northern neighborhood in Homs, where the army has been advancing. Video showed extensive destruction. Activists said most of the buildings in the mainly residential district were no longer fit to live in.

Elsewhere, an opposition group said the death toll from nearly two weeks of clashes between al-Qaida-linked fighters and Kurdish militiamen in northeastern Syria stands at 120. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead include 79 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra, both al-Qaida-affiliated rebel groups. The group monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists on the ground,

This latest round of fighting flared in Ras al-Ayn on July 6 in the predominantly Kurdish Hassakeh province in the north, near the Turkish border. Kurdish gunmen are fighting to expel the militants, whom they see as a threat.

After capturing the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanon border last month, government troops launched an offensive on rebel-held areas in Homs, Syria's third largest city, late in June. They have been pushing into Khaldiyeh and other neighborhoods in the Old City that have been under opposition control since 2011.

An unidentified Syrian army commander standing before a destroyed building in Khaldiyeh told an embedded state TV reporter that the military expected to "liberate" the last part of Khaldiyeh within the next two days.

Syrian government forces captured the ancient Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in Khaldiyeh on Saturday. Syrian TV aired a report with video from inside the mosque, showing heavy damage. The video showed debris strewn on the floor and a portion of the mosque appeared to have been burned.

The mosque, famous for its nine domes and two minarets, has been a symbol for rebels in the city that is known as "the capital of the revolution." On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam. Video showed the tomb's roof knocked down.

The Observatory and other activists said government troops are backed by members of Lebanon's Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside regime forces in their assault on rebel-held territory in the central region.

In addition to its symbolic value, Homs is a geographic lynchpin in Syria. The main highway from Damascus to the north and the coast, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, runs through Homs.

Also on Sunday, Syria's main exiled opposition group condemned the reported execution of scores of government soldiers by rebels in a northern Syrian village several days ago.

The Syrian National Coalition made up of exiled opposition leaders said in a statement that it was forming a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident in Khan al-Assal.

Syrian activists say rebels killed 150 government soldiers, some after they surrendered, on Monday and Tuesday in the village outside Aleppo, the country's largest city.

The state media said that 123 "civilians and military personnel" were killed in a "massacre" and others were still missing.

"Those involved in such crimes will be held accountable," the Coalition statement said.

The Coalition said initial reports showed "armed groups" not affiliated with the main rebel coalition were involved. It did not elaborate, but the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra says its fighters participated in the battle.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the crime "will not pass without punishment," vowing that the perpetrators will pay a "dear price."

In an interview with Syrian TV late Saturday, he said the "massacre" aimed to spread fear and panic among people at a time when the Syrian military was achieving significant progress on the ground.

In a separate statement, the Coalition urged Egypt to release dozens of Syrians it said were arrested last week allegedly for violating residency regulations.

It said Egyptian police arrested at least 72 Syrian men and nine boys at checkpoints on main roads in Cairo. Some had valid visas or residence permits but were arrested "on the pretext of not having residence permits," it said.

The Coalition said regulations concerning Syrians' entrance into Egypt were changed. Since July 8, Syrians have been required to obtain entry visas and security clearance before they are allowed to enter Egypt.

It urged the Egyptian government not to deport Syrians, saying Cairo has an "ethical and humanitarian duty to protect the Syrian people fleeing the tyranny" at home.


Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.