The wasteland: Horrifying aerial pictures show full scale of destruction of Syrian city of Homs
- Syrian forces say they have captured the Khaldiyeh district of Homs, a rebel stronghold since the war began
- But Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say there is still scattered fighting in southern areas of the neighborhood
- Syrian TV aired footage of troops roaming deserted streets and waving flags in front of shell-scarred buildings
By Matt Blake
July 29, 2013
House after house, block after block it is a scene of the most appalling devastation.
Not one building has escaped the onslaught of countless mortars, bombs and bullets in Syria’s savage civil war. The only signs of life in Homs are out-of-control weeds. Syria’s third largest city - and the home of 650,000 people before tens of thousands fled or were killed - now looks as if it has been blasted back to the Stone Age.
The picture shows the city’s strategic Khaldiyeh district which troops loyal to president Bashar al-Assad have just retaken after weeks of fierce fighting with rebels.
The counter-offensive, which also saw the government make gains around the capital Damascus, was supported by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.
At least 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which started with peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. Nearly two million refugees have fled.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, however, denied that regime forces had seized all of the district of Khaldiyeh, saying there was still scattered fighting in southern areas of the neighborhood.
Syrian TV aired footage from the neighborhood, showing troops roaming deserted streets and waving flags in front of shell-scarred buildings. Two opposition activists in the area who could normally be contacted via Skype were offline Monday.
Government troops launched a sweeping offensive to retake rebel-held areas of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, a month ago. Even if small pockets of resistance remain, the fall of Khaldiyeh to regime troops appeared to be a foregone conclusion, and its capture would be the second major setback to rebels in central Syria in as many months.
In early June, regime forces captured the strategic town of Qusair in Homs province near the border with Lebanon. Troops have also captured the town of Talkalakh, another border town in the province.
The province of Homs is Syria’s largest, and runs from the Lebanese frontier in the west all the way to the border with Iraq and Jordan in the east. The city of Homs holds strategic value because it serves as a crossroads: the main highway from Damascus to the north as well as the coastal region, which is a stronghold of president Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect, runs through Homs.
Khaldiyeh had a population of about 80,000 but only some 2,000 remain there today as residents fled the violence, activists say. The heavy fighting over the past two years has caused extensive damage, with some buildings reduced to rubble.
In a report on Monday, Syrian state TV said ‘the Syrian army has restored security and stability in the whole neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in Homs.’
A Syrian TV reporter embedded with troops in the area gave a live report standing in front of damaged buildings. He interviewed an army officer who said the troops fought a tough battle against the rebels who mined buildings and fought from underground tunnels.
‘As of this morning, our armed forces in cooperation with the (pro-government paramilitary) National Defense Forces have taken control of Khaldiyeh and are now cleansing the neighborhood,’ said the officer, surrounded by a dozen soldiers and plainclothes security agents.
‘The fate of terrorists will be under our feet,’ he said, claiming that all Homs will be soon ‘cleansed’ of rebels.
The Observatory has said that troops are backed by members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group. Hezbollah, which did not acknowledge whether its members are fighting in Khaldiyeh, played a major role in a battle last month in Qusair, outside Homs, and lost scores of men there.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said government troops have captured most of the neighborhood apart from some fighting on its southern areas.
Another opposition activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the battle in Khaldiyeh ‘is almost over.’ He acknowledged that troops are almost in full control of the area.
In the northern city of Aleppo, several rebel factions including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, attacked army posts in two neighborhoods in an offensive titled ‘amputating infidels’ the Observatory said.
It said rebels captured several buildings in the neighborhood of Dahret Abed Rabbo and Lairamoun, and that eight government soldiers were killed.
Rebels have been on the offensive in Aleppo province and captured last week the strategic town of Khan el-Assal. Activists and state media said score of troops were killed there after their capture. The Western-backed Syrian National Council condemned the killings.
In the southern region of Quneitra, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, government troops captured the town of Mashara on Sunday night after intense fighting, the Observatory said.