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Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah militants on Sunday consolidated their grip over a key rebel district in flashpoint Homs as they pressed to retake the central city, a watchdog said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops now controlled most of Khaldiyeh where they seized an ancient mosque and concentrated on fighting insurgents on the outskirts of the district.
The fall of Homs, dubbed by rebels “the capital of the revolution” against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would be a major government victory as Syria’s third city is a key route linking Damascus to the coast.
Around seven neighborhoods in the Old City are still in rebel hands.
However, troops appear determined to dislodge them as they did in Qusayr, a Homs province town they seized in June with the help of fighters from Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.
“The army and Hezbollah control a major part of Khaldiyeh after having gained ground (over the past 24 hours) and fighting is now concentrated on the northern and southern outskirts of the district,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The Beirut-based satellite television channel Al Mayadeen, which is considered close to the Damascus government, broadcast footage of Khaldiyeh showing massive destruction in the district in the north of the city.
It showed several buildings that have been reduced to rubble and deserted streets, as well as the interior of the Khaled bin Walid mosque which troops seized on Saturday.
The ancient place of worship noted for its Ottoman and Mameluk architectural style is where Khaled bin Walid, a prominent Arab warrior and companion of the Prophet Mohammed, is said to be buried.
The mosque in Khaldiyeh was a focal point of the uprising which is now in its third year, and the launchpad for several anti-government demonstrations.
It has been damaged in the past, and Bin Walid’s mausoleum was destroyed in a rocket attack, the Observatory and militants said.
Backed by Hezbollah, the army launched an offensive on Khaldiyeh about a month ago, but rebels are still entrenched in several parts of the Old City.
Hezbollah, the strongest military force in Lebanon and whose military wing has been blacklisted by the European Union as a terrorist group, also helped Syria’s army retake Qusayr.
That town too is strategic because it lies on the border with Lebanon and serves as a supply route for the army, linking Damascus to the coastal stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite community.
The 28-month-old civil war in Syria has killed a total of more than 100,000 people and left millions of refugees, without any peace settlement in sight.