BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces fired heavy machine guns and launched at least one airstrike Monday on a neighborhood in the central city of Homs that rebels claimed to have seized a day earlier.
The fresh violence sent residents fleeing the area, carrying satchels and children with them.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting raged in and around the Baba Amr district, sending civilians in nearby neighborhoods fleeing the area.
Baba Amr, a poor neighborhood on the southwest side of Syria’s third largest city, was a center of opposition to President Bashar Assad early in the uprising that began two years ago.
Last year, government forces besieged Baba Amr for a month before rebel forces withdrew and the government seized control on March 1. Hundreds of people were killed in the violence, including two foreign journalists.
It was unclear how much of the neighborhood rebels had seized or continued to hold on Monday.
An activist in Homs reached via Skype on Monday said rebel fighters made a surprise entry into Baba Amr the previous morning and quickly took over seven government checkpoints in and near the neighborhood, seizing a good part of the area.
The government struck back on Monday, carrying out an airstrike, shelling the area and sending reinforcements, he said.
Another activist from Baba Amr who is now in Lebanon said rebels had taken the whole neighborhood and were focused on holding it despite the government’s harsh counter attack.
He said it was very important to the regime militarily and as a symbol, so rebels are excited that this symbol of the revolution has been retaken. Both activists spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety.
An activist posted video online that appeared to show dozens of civilians, most of them women and children, fleeing the neighborhood.
The video corresponded with other reporting by The Associated Press.
The Syrian state news agency said the army had responded to “terrorists who sneaked into Baba Amr in Homs and committed crimes against people,” killing a number of them. It said the army continued to pursue those remaining in the area.
The Syrian government blames the civil war on a foreign-backed conspiracy, calling the rebels “terrorists” bent on destroying the country.
Elsewhere, residents of a small Christian village near Homs accused gunmen of raiding their village, robbing homes and killing two men in recent days. They said all residents of the village of about 1,000 people had fled the violence.
A Christian clergyman from Um Sharshouh, northwest of Homs, said gunmen entered the village on March 6 and robbed houses and shops, saying they were looking for weapons.
They kidnapped two men, and after a mediator secured their release, the gunmen kidnapped and killed the mediator’s son, Kifah Bitar, and another man, Rony Elias, on March 9, the clergyman said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, he said the village’s 1,000 residents had since fled to other areas in Homs, leaving behind only a group of 50 young men to defend the village.
It was unclear why the gunmen attacked the village, but a government official from Homs confirmed the killings, saying the gunmen came from the nearby rebel strongholds of Rastan and Talbiseh. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with protocol.
Tensions between Syria’s various religious groups have risen as violence has spread. Many in the Sunni Muslim majority back the rebels, while other groups, like Shiites and Alawites, stand by the regime.
Syria’s Christians, some 10 percent of the population, have largely stayed out of the violence, although many see the secular Assad regime as their protector against Islamic fundamentalism. Some Christians have been kidnapped for ransom and churches have been damaged after their capture by rebels.
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers met to discuss ways to end the violence in Syria. They were expected to discuss ending the EU’s blanket arms embargo against the country to make it easier for sympathetic nations to send arms to the rebels.
Many EU diplomats, however, says more weapons will only exacerbate the situation.
Syrian Gen. Salim Idris, a defector who now heads the rebels’ High Military Council, traveled to Brussels last week to plead for arms from the international community.
Also Monday, the UN Human Rights Council released a report that said neither government forces nor rebels were doing enough to protect civilians.
The Geneva-based council said some 2.5 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been internally displaced and another million have fled the country as refugees.
“Failure to resolve this increasingly violent conflict will condemn Syria, the region and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire to an unimaginably bleak future,” it said.
The report accused government forces of targeting civilians in bakery lines and funeral processions, while criticizing rebels for fighting in civilian areas and using buildings such as mosques for bases.
The report covers the period from Jan. 15 to March 3, 2013. It noted that insufficient access to the country greatly limited investigators’ ability to gather information.
The UN says more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s crisis, which began as a mostly peaceful uprising in March 2011 and has since descended into full-scale civil war.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
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