Syrian tanks join regime units in fight for Homs

Death toll continues to rise as rebels and government troops head into a third year of conflict with no immediate signs of a solution.

A Free Syrian Army fighter mourns at the grave of his father who was killed by what activists say was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad.
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BEIRUT // Syrian rebels and troops fought fierce battles over a keenly contested neighbourhood of Homs yesterday, as fresh clashes broke out on the road linking Damascus to its international airport, a watchdog said.

The fighting in Homs was focused on the Khaldiyeh district and comes one week into a massive army and pro-regime militia assault to reclaim rebel-held districts in the central Syria city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Regime forces were backed by tanks, which pounded the neighbourhood, activists reported.

Fresh violence also broke out on the outskirts of Baba Amr, another strategic neighbourhood that had become a symbol of resistance to president Bashar Al Assad's regime before it was overrun by the army a year ago.

"Troops launched rockets from the Baath university into parts of Baba Amr," said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its reporting.

Like other educational and health facilities across Syria, the university has been used before as an army base, although students have continued to attend classes.

Fierce clashes meanwhile "raged" in Baba Amr, the Observatory added. Once an opposition bastion, the army seized Baba Amr from rebel hands last year after a relentless, month-long bombing campaign on the neighbourhood.

Rebels two days ago launched a counter-offensive in a bid to retake Babr Amr, sparking heavy fighting during which the military launched artillery attacks and waves of air strikes.

Elsewhere in Syria, battles broke out on the road linking Damascus to the airport, south-east of the capital on the edges of the Beit Sahem, Aqraba and Jaramana neighbourhoods, the watchdog said.

Rebels have for months being trying to seize control of the road leading to the airport, but have continually been repulsed by regime forces.

The road is strategic because it leads to the regime's main gateway to the world, and because it is near the Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus province, home to some of the rebels' better organised fighting forces.

Syria said yesterday it was ready to fight "for years" against rebels trying to topple the president, as the UN warned that a generation of children risked being lost in the spiralling violence.

As the conflict, which the UN says has killed more than 70,000 people, approached its third year without a solution in sight, president Shimon Peres of neighbouring Israel urged Arab intervention to end the "massacre".

Pro-government daily Al Watan said the army was "in perfect condition" to defend Syria, but stressed that citizens could also join in the battle, echoing a call made by the country's top religious authority.

"Soldiers and officers have been fighting for two years with a courage and bravery unparalleled in world history, in the fiercest of battles," the newspaper said. "The Syrian army has at its disposal enough men and weapons to fight for years to defend Syria."

The pro-regime High Islamic Council had on Monday emphasised that "the defence of a united Syria and the Syrian people is an obligation which all (citizens) ... must fulfil."

Syria "is in a state of war", it said, adding the council's appeal aimed to encourage citizens to get involved in defending the nation, which is "facing a real invasion" from its neighbours Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

In the capital itself, fighting broke out yesterday in the eastern district of Jobar, whose outer edges are in rebel hands.

On Monday alone, at least 148 people were killed in violence across Syria, among them 65 rebel fighters, 42 soldiers and 41 civilians, said the Observatory.