July 8, 2013 8:02 pm

Assad troops step up battle to rout Syrian rebels from Homs

Reuters
A view of a street piled with damaged buildings by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Hom©Reuters

A Homs street destroyed in fighting between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's forces

Syrian troops fought with rebels in the central city of Homs on Monday in a battle seen as crucial to the government's attempts to drive a wedge between opposition-held areas and establish links between the capital and President Bashar al-Assad's coastal strongholds.

Mr Assad's forces have been on the offensive in Homs for 10 days, hitting rebel-held neighbourhoods with air strikes, mortar bombs and tanks.

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Rebels control much of northern Syria but have been on the back foot against Mr Assad's army further south since it last month retook Qusair, a town near the border with Lebanon, where victory marked a change in the government's fortunes.

Homs, 140km (90 miles) north of Damascus, lies at a strategic crossing linking the capital with army bases in coastal regions controlled by Mr Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that has dominated majority Sunni Syria since the 1960s.

Mr Assad is trying to cement control of this belt of territory, in a move that could drive a wedge between rebel-held areas in the north and south of the country.

At a time when the army has made gains on the battlefield, Syrian state media announced that new leaders had been appointed in the ruling Ba'ath party in a reshuffle that will be seen as an attempt by Mr Assad to put a new face on the political organisation that has dominated Syrian politics for more than four decades.

“The Ba'ath party must develop to strengthen a culture of dialogue . . . and deepen interaction with citizens to overcome the negative effect of the crisis,” Mr Assad was quoted as saying by state media.

In Istanbul, the newly elected head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition told Reuters that the rebels' military position was weak and proposed a truce for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Tuesday, to stop fighting in Homs.

There was no sign that the government in Damascus, with its forces now grinding out advances following setbacks earlier in the war, was ready to accept such a ceasefire.

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