Air raids intensify in Syria's Homs, prayers canceled: doctor, monitors

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government air strikes hit rebel-held areas north of the city of Homs for a second day, forcing authorities to cancel Friday prayers for the first time in six months, monitors and a doctor there said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said a number of raids hit the town of Rastan in the north of the province and other towns and villages nearby, and barrel bombs had been dropped from helicopters in the past 24 hours. The bombardments came after the United Nations started a new round of peace talks in Geneva, and as surging fighting in Aleppo challenged a fragile cessation of hostilities deal agreed in February. The doctor in Homs province, Mohamad al-Shamsi, said a man and child had been killed in Rastan. He said the strikes hit "the same area that Russian air strikes targeted on Sept. 30, their first day in Syria". Russia intervened in the five-year-old Syrian war in September to bolster ally President Bashar al-Assad. President Vladimir Putin, who last month decided to withdraw some of the Russian forces deployed to Syria, said Moscow had left Damascus in a position to launch major offensives. The Britain-based Observatory said Friday's Homs strikes were believed to be carried out by the Syrian air force, rather than Russian planes. (Reporting by John Davison and Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens)