Battles raging in hotbed of Syrian insurgency

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BEIRUT -- Deadly battles are raging in Homs, the central Syrian city that was long a hub and a symbol of the revolt against President Bashar Assad, with both soldiers and insurgents saying they have lost many fighters in recent days as the government presses an all-out assault on the last few rebel-held areas in the Old City of Homs.

Insurgents and anti-government activists reported near-continuous bombardment of the Old City enclaves and the nearby neighborhood of Waer, a sometimes restive area whose population of 100,000 has been doubled by displaced Syrians, including many from the Old City, sheltering there.

State news media and government opponents reported that a car bomb killed numerous people Friday outside a mosque in an area called March 8 Square near a government checkpoint. Each side blamed the other, giving death tolls ranging from none to more than 30. University students and Palestinian refugees living in the area were reported to be among the dead in the latest of many such bombings.

An army officer reached on the Old City's outskirts said soldiers were advancing and taking casualties, but while officers had earlier predicted a quick victory, he declined to say when the fight would end. Government opponents and their international backers called on the United Nations to take action to prevent what they feared would be an imminent massacre in the Old City, saying that despite evacuations of about 1,500 civilians from the areas, more than 100 remained, along with more than 1,000 fighters. But with the Security Council divided, as Russia backs the government and the United States backs the opposition, only a tepid statement of "grave concern" was issued Thursday.

In another development, four French journalists who were held captive for 10 months in Syria were released on the Turkish-Syrian border late Friday and were on their way home to France, President Francois Hollande said Saturday.

Mr. Hollande said the journalists were "in good health despite the grueling conditions of their captivity," and he thanked those "who permitted the happy ending of this ordeal."

The deadlock in Homs comes despite a resolution adopted by the council in February calling for full access to humanitarian aid, and admonitions in recent days from the Syrian opposition coalition and the U.N. mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. The coalition said the council risked becoming "a mere spectator," and Brahimi said Homs had again become a "theater of death and destruction," three months after the evacuation deal raised hopes for calm.

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said the Syrian government was not only ignoring the Security Council resolution but also "intentionally increasing the despair of the Syrian people in its all-out bid to retain personal power." The Syrian government says it is rooting out foreign fighters and terrorists who have shelled civilian areas.

Homs has long been a focal point of international demands that fighters lift blockades of food and supplies for civilians, a practice used by both sides but in more cases by the government. In the Old City, besieged and bombarded by the government for much of the past two years, residents and fighters have resorted to eating leaves and grass.

A committee of Homs residents, which helped negotiate the evacuations, recently issued a statement declaring that while "the eyes of the world" had turned away from Homs, civilians were still starving in the Old City and facing indiscriminate bombardment and blockades there and in Waer.

But government officials say those who remain in the Old City are entirely insurgents, and soldiers and security officials on its outskirts told reporters on a recent visit that the stage was set for a battle to crush all those who remained.

The government's offer of reconciliation, amnesty and evacuation for those who lay down arms has sown division among those remaining, with some residents speculating that a Dutch priest killed recently inside the Old City was murdered by fighters opposing the evacuations, and others contending that government infiltrators had killed him to pave the way for the assault.


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