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Civilians trapped in besieged Homs, Syria

| Friday, July 5, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

Syrian government troops unleashed a major artillery barrage on the city of Homs on Friday, hitting buildings near a 13th-century mosque as they pressed an assault on rebel-held areas in the country's strategic heartland.

Opposition activists said Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas had joined the fighting in Syria's third-largest city. If confirmed, it would be the first major move by the Iranian-backed group since it helped regime troops capture a key border town from the rebels last month.

As the shells landed, thousands of civilians trapped in the city faced severe shortages of food, water and medicine, prompting the United Nations and opposition groups to warn of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have suffered a series of setbacks recently, including the loss of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last month. Despite recent shipments of more advanced weapons from gulf Arab countries, they have been unable to score any major gains in the past few weeks.

The powerful Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the regime, was instrumental in the regime's victory in Qusair. Opposition activists say the group's fighters have spread out in Homs and even parts of Aleppo in the north, propping up outstretched army troops.

Emboldened, the regime has tried to build on its successes to shore up its military position. On Saturday, it started a major offensive on Homs, a central city of about 1 million on the road between the capital, Damascus, and regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.

The fighting in Syria has increasingly taken on sectarian undertones as Assad enjoys support from many in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels are mainly Sunnis.

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 to the coast, where many believe Assad would take refuge as a last resort.

“It appears the regime wants to take Khaldiyeh (district), no matter what the price,” said Tariq Badrakhan, an activist based in the northern district of Homs where the fighting was concentrated Friday. He said troops backed by pro-government militiamen and Hezbollah fighters were attacking the area from three sides with multiple rocket launchers, tanks and mortars.

Online video showed shells slamming into buildings in the densely built area near the historic Khalid Ibn al-Walid mosque, famous for its nine domes and two minarets that tower over the skyline. The video, posted on Saturday, appeared consistent with The Associated Press' reporting from the area.

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