- Associated Press - Friday, October 5, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian warplanes and artillery pounded the central city of Homs on Friday, subjecting the rebel stronghold to its heaviest bombardment in months, activists said.

The reported tank and mortar shelling as well as airstrikes come alongside a push by government force on another front, the embattled northern city of Aleppo.

The stepped-up pace of government attacks on Syrian cities suggests that the Damascus regime’s forces have not been distracted by escalating tensions with its northern neighbor, Turkey. Ankara’s parliament on Thursday authorized cross-border military operations after a Syrian shell killed five civilians on Turkish territory the day before.

Activist Mohammed Saeed, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said rebels captured an air defense base in the Eastern Ghouta area near the capital.

A video showed dozens of gunmen outside a building where smoke is billowing. One of the gunmen says that a “missile air defense battalion” was captured. Another clip showed missiles inside a room.

Saeed said the rebels captured the base on Monday, but the videos were released late Thursday, three days after the operation. They gave no reason for the delay.

The rebels did not give any other evidence that would confirm the capture the capture of a base, or identify the location of the video.

If confirmed, the capture of a stock of working anti-aircraft missiles would be a boost to a lightly-armed force that says it faces frequent attacks by low-flying helicopters and warplanes.

Homs has been one of the flashpoints of the 18-month old uprising against Assad’s regime. The focus of fighting has shifted to other areas in recent months, including Aleppo, since a government offensive against rebel strongholds in Homs slowed down in April.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday’s attack is the worst Homs has seen in five months. The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the bombardment had hit the city’s Khaldiya neighborhood.

“Around dawn, the regime went crazy and started shelling hysterically,” a Homs-based activist known as Abu Rami told The Associated Press via Skype on Friday. “An average of five rockets a minute are falling.” Abu Rami was speaking from the central rebel-held old quarter known as Old Homs. He asked to be identified by his nickname for fear of regime reprisal.

He said the government forces are mainly firing rockets and heavy mortars at the rebel-held neighborhoods of Old Homs, Khaldiya, Qusour and Jouret el-Shayah. Abu Rami also said the regime forces have been shelling villages around Homs and the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the city.

He said there were no immediate reports of casualties, adding that most residents who still live in rebel-held areas around the city are hiding in shelters.

Activists say most government forces near Homs are stationed outside the town — a common pattern in rebel strongholds.

Homs is Syria’s third largest city. Regime forces pounded parts of Homs for months, leaving large swaths of the city in ruins by April. Since then level of violence has dropped, although gun battles still frequently break out.

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