Syria official says forces take rebel area of Homs

Associated Press
In this Wednesday, July 3, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows buildings damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, Syria. Gunfire echoed and tank shells slammed in Homs Friday in what activists and residents described as one of the worst barrages on the central city in a furious attempt to recapture opposition-held districts in the country's strategic heartland. The U.N. warns of a humanitarian catastrophe involving up to 4,000 civilians trapped in city amid severe shortages of food, water and medicine. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)
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In this Wednesday, July 3, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows buildings damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, Syria. Gunfire echoed and tank shells slammed in Homs Friday in what activists and residents described as one of the worst barrages on the central city in a furious attempt to recapture opposition-held districts in the country's strategic heartland. The U.N. warns of a humanitarian catastrophe involving up to 4,000 civilians trapped in city amid severe shortages of food, water and medicine. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)

BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian government official claimed that the army wrested a contested district of a key city from rebels on Monday after ten days of fierce fighting. But two activists based in the city denied the claim, saying rebels were under heavy fire but still holding on.

President Bashar Assad's forces have launched a major offensive to retake the strategic city of Homs, a transport hub that sits between the capital, Damascus, and costal areas overwhelmingly loyal to the regime. Rebels seeking his ouster have held on to parts of the city they took over a year ago, but have been under siege.

The official, from Homs province, said troops took the Khaldiyeh district but were still "cleaning" out rebel-held pockets. He gave no other details and requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

A Khaldiyeh-based activist who gave his name as Abu Yasin however said government forces had not advanced beyond a series of buildings they seized earlier in the week. He said forces loyal to Assad were trying to enter the areas of Bab Houd and Khaldiyeh by pummeling buildings with mortar fire to flush out the rebels.

Another Homs-based activist who gave his name only as Nedal said government troops were shelling heavily around a 12-century mosque in Khaldiyeh, indicating they were still battling for control. The Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque, famed for its nine domes and two minarets is an iconic part of the ancient city's skyline.

"It's quiet in the morning, and then they go crazy," Nedal said via Skype. The sound of explosions could be heard in the background.

Divisions among Syria's opposition have been a chief obstacle for many countries to provide more aid and military supplies to besieged rebels.

Underscoring divisions on Monday, the prime minister of the Syrian Interim Government brushed aside suggestions that he would resign, despite being unable to form a Cabinet for months.

Ghassan Hitto was appointed in March to head an interim government to administer areas seized by the rebels. But he is mistrusted by other Council members who dislike his perceived proximity to Islamists, and his election prompted a walkout of several Syrian National Council members.

Speaking from Istanbul, Hitto said he hoped the newly-elected president of the Western-backed opposition group would help speed up his task. Ahmad al-Jarba, a former political prisoner with close links to Saudi Arabia, was elected Saturday.

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