News / Middle East

    Activists Say Syria Rebels Raid Homs, Create Council in East

    Free Syrian Army fighters stand by their weapons in a street in Homs March 9, 2013.Free Syrian Army fighters stand by their weapons in a street in Homs March 9, 2013.
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    Free Syrian Army fighters stand by their weapons in a street in Homs March 9, 2013.
    Free Syrian Army fighters stand by their weapons in a street in Homs March 9, 2013.
    Syrian opposition activists say rebels have put more pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, launching an offensive to retake a former rebel stronghold in central Syria and establishing a religious council in the east. 
     
    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels stormed the Baba Amr district of the central city of Homs on Sunday, about a year after government forces drove them out in a month-long battle that killed hundreds of people. Assad had visited Baba Amr last March to mark that victory and promised to rehabilitate the devastated neighborhood. 
     
    Activists said Assad's forces responded fiercely to the new rebel advance, shelling and striking Baba Amr from the air. Days earlier, Syrian troops had intensified operations to oust rebels from other Homs districts such Khaldiyeh. The activists said rebels infiltrated Baba Amr to try to relieve pressure on those enclaves. 
     
    The Observatory said Islamist rebels also have proclaimed a new religious council in eastern Syria as part of the two-year-old uprising against President Assad's 12-year autocratic rule. 
     
    An opposition video uploaded to YouTube on Saturday appears to show an Islamist convoy draped with black flags driving through an eastern town and attaching a banner to a building, declaring the creation of the regional council. The Observatory said the Islamist council intends to exert control over judicial and police affairs. 
     
    Earlier this month, rebels captured the eastern city of Raqqa, the first Syrian provincial capital to fall into rebel hands since the rebellion started. Videos posted to the Internet on Saturday purportedly showed the al-Qaida linked Jabhat al-Nusra Front interrogating two of Assad's representatives in Raqqa, the provincial governor and the local head of the ruling Baath party. 
     
    Other YouTube footage from Raqqa showed what appeared to be the aftermath of a retaliatory government air strike on Saturday. At least seven bodies could be seen on a bombed-out street. 
     
    Elsewhere, the Observatory said residents of the northern city of Aleppo pulled at least 20 bodies from a river on Sunday. It was the second discovery of a mass dumping of bodies in the river since January. 
     
    The Syrian government does not see itself as the target of a popular revolution and consistently claims to be fighting foreign-backed terrorists. 
     
    In another development, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the flood of Syrians fleeing the country's civil war has intensified rapidly in recent months, rising from 3,000 a day in December to 8,000 a day last month. 
     
    "This shows you the staggering escalation that we are witnessing. Now if this escalation goes on - and nothing happens to solve the problem - we might have in the end of the year a much larger number of refugees, two or three times the present level," he said.
     
    The United Nations said last week the number of Syrian refugees has risen to an estimated one million people, with most concentrated in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 
     
    Guterres said Sunday about 400,000 Syrians are believed to be in Turkey. He was speaking on a visit to the Turkish capital Ankara to coordinate assistance to the refugees.

    Michael Lipin

    Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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