DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government troops gained ground in clashes Friday in two rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, edging closer to a historic mosque and closing in on opposition fighters in the area, state television and activists said.
The advance came amid a wide offensive by President Bashar Assad’s forces and as Syria’s Western-backed opposition group met for the first time with the U.N. Security Council.
With about 1 million residents, Homs lies along a main artery linking the capital, Damascus, with regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast to the west. Homs has played a key role in the country’s civil war, now in its third year, and the struggle for control of the city also has underscored the conflict’s increasingly sectarian undertones.
Activists, who consider Homs “the capital of the revolution,” say the regime wants to capture the entire city to include it in a future Alawite state — stretching from Homs to the coast — where Assad could possibly make his last stand. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels fighting to topple his regime are Sunnis.
In recent weeks, Assad’s troops have captured several nearby rebel-held areas, including the towns of Qusair and Talkalkh near the border with Lebanon.
State TV said Friday that troops advanced in Homs’ northern neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and Jouret el-Shayah.
The report said the government forces were getting close to Khaldiyeh’s 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, famous for its nine domes and two minarets. On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam.
An activist in the city who only identified himself as Abu Bilal for fear of government reprisals said the troops were now about 50 meters (yards) from the mosque. “Resistance cannot stand up to tanks, warplanes and mortars,” Abu Bilal said, speaking from the city via Skype.
In New York, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition told the U.N. Security Council it is ready to attend a peace conference if the Syrian government commits to having Assad hand over power to a transitional government.
The United States, which supports the opposition, and Russia, which supports the Assad government, are trying to convene a new conference in Geneva to try to get both sides to implement a plan adopted in the Swiss city a year ago. It calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers.
However, the demand that Assad relinquish power has halted the talks. Ahmed al-Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, later said that if Assad doesn’t hand over power, “the regime will never step down, and its violent repression will continue.”
As the rebel leaders met at the United Nations, violence continued. In the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, a bomb exploded Friday evening, causing casualties, both the state-run news agency SANA and the pro-government television station Al-Akhbariya said. Neither the agency nor the station reported specifics about the attack. The blast went off in the same square where a car bomb exploded Thursday, killing 10 people and wounding 66.
Officials also said pro-government troops were advancing in battles with rebel forces in the now mostly empty Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. Clashes in the camp, which has mostly been under rebel control since last year, broke out earlier this week.
Since the start of the unrest, Syria’s half-million Palestinians have struggled to remain on the sidelines but many were eventually split between pro-and anti-Assad groups. In particular, young Palestinian refugees joined the rebels in the fight against Assad’s regime.
Thousands of the camp’s residents have fled to escape the fighting and have gone to other areas in Syria or to neighboring Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nearly 150 soldiers were killed on Monday and Tuesday after rebels stormed and seized the village of Khan al-Assal on the southwestern edge of the northern city of Aleppo. He said 51 of them were shot dead after they were captured alive and surrendered to rebels.
The report could not be independently confirmed. Syria’s official media does not release casualty figures for security forces and regime soldiers.
Also Friday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that Polish journalist Marcin Suder, who was kidnapped in the rebel-held town of Saraqeb in Idlib province this week, likely was taken by a dangerous and radical group seeking ransom. Tusk told journalists that Suder’s abduction “probably has the character of a robbery.”
Suder was reporting from Syria as a freelancer, Suder’s Polish agency, Studio Melon, said Wednesday.
Another photographer, Jonathan Alpeyrie, was released after being held for 81 days by a Syrian milita, the New York-based agency Polaris Images said in a statement Friday. Polaris said Alpeyrie, of New York, had been abducted in April while working in Syria’s Yabrud region, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Damascus
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, the U.N. now says, up from nearly 93,000 just more than a month ago.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Cassandra Vinograd in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Monica Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.