Syrian rebels launched a counter-offensive against a government siege of their positions in the strategic city of Homs despite coming under ferocious aerial bombardment on Sunday, opposition campaigners said.
The mixed city, inhabited by Sunnis and Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam who have dominated Syria since the 1960s, has emerged as a major battleground in the two-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has claimed about 70,000 lives so far, according to the United Nations.
Homs, 140 kms (88 miles) north of Damascus in central Syria, lies on a vital road juncture linking army bases on the coast, home to a large proportion of Assad's minority Alawite sect, and government forces in the capital Damascus.
Sunni Muslim rebels broke through government lines in the north and west to ease a months-long army siege on their strongholds in the center of the city, opposition sources said.
Fighters based in the provinces of Hama and Idlib advanced on Homs this weekend from the north while brigades from rural Homs attacked government positions in Baba Amro. This area was overrun by the army after a long siege a year ago and subsequently visited by Assad.
The official state news agency said "a unit of our brave army engaged with an armed terrorist group that had tried to infiltrate Baba Amro ... and killed and wounded several of its members."
Abu Imad, an opposition activist, said the sound of aerial bombardment on Baba Amro in western Homs shook the city.
"This situation is muddled in the whole of Homs, but what is certain is that the regime is busy trying to repel rebel brigades who have broken into Baba Amro from its rural surroundings," he said.
Both sides have taken heavy casualties since the army went on the offensive 10 days ago to take the central districts of Khalidya, al-Qusour and Old Homs, where rebel brigades have been dug in for months, according to opposition military sources.
Rebels repelled several army attempts to take Khalidya with infantry in the last 10 days and dozens from both sides have been killed, the sources said.
ASSAD SAYS FOCUS IS BIG CITIES
Assad, fighting to maintain his family's four-decade-old grip on the country, appears to be focusing his military campaign on holding the main cities, along a highway axis running north of Homs to Hama and Aleppo and south to Damascus and Deraa, according to opposition sources.
In a meeting with parliamentarians from Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party in Damascus on Thursday, Assad said he couldn't control some parts of Syria, accusing Turkey of backing what he described as terrorists.
"We can't control all parts of Syria. We are focused on big cities. There are terrorist attacks in the countryside," Assad said according to a report the party published on Sunday.
Nader al-Husseini, an activist from Baba Amro, said several roadblocks in the district had fallen to rebel fighters and dozens of loyalist troops and militia had fled to the nearby districts of Jobar and Inshaat.
"For the regime to take hits in Baba Amro is damaging to its morale, especially since Assad visited Baba Amro and was filmed there, supposedly sealing the regime's triumph," Husseini said.
In the east of Syria, a desert region that extends to Iraq's Sunni heartland, government jets bombarded the city of Raqqa, which fell to the opposition last week, killing five people. But some refugees who had fled to nearby rural and desert regions have begun returning to the city, activists said.
Large parts of eastern Syria, which accounts for all of the country's oil production and most of its grain output, have been captured by the armed opposition in recent weeks.
But the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group of the political opposition, postponed a meeting to form a provisional government, in the latest setback to opposition efforts to create an administration to take over if Assad is ousted.
The coalition meeting to elect a provisional prime minister, which was due to be held on March 12 after being postponed once already, has been rescheduled for March 20, but it was uncertain it would be held even then, coalition sources said.
Meanwhile, the number of refugees fleeing Syria could triple by the end of the year from one million now, according to a new U.N. estimate.
"Everything depends on whether or not we will have a political solution but we need to be prepared for a very strong increase of the present numbers," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters in Ankara.
Opposition campaigners said at least 20 bodies of young men captured and shot by security forces were found on Sunday in a small waterway running through the contested city of Aleppo.
It was the largest number of bodies lifted in a single day from what became known as "the river of martyrs", after 65 bodies turned up in late January. An average of several bodies a day have been appearing in the river since, several activists in the northern city, which is near Turkey, told Reuters.
Syrian authorities have banned most independent media from the country, making verification of reported events difficult.