x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syria steps up assault on Homs while asking refugees to return

Syria's interior ministry promises opposition politicians, and anyone else who had fled the country, a guarantee of safe passage if they return.

DAMASCUS // The Syrian army stepped up an offensive on opposition strongholds in Homs yesterday, as government supporters turned out at Damascus mosques to show their backing for president Bashar Al Assad.

Many heeded Mr Al Assad's call for support, according to state-run media, a day after the regime implored hundreds of thousands of citizens who fled the civil war to return home.

Government forces yesterday claimed to have inflicted "heavy losses" on rebels in the central city of Homs, a key battleground and major player in the uprising, as well as in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama.

And at least eight members of the Syrian military intelligence were killed by a car bomb in the town of Sa'sa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The bomb attack in the southern town late on Thursday was carried out by Al Nusra Front, an Islamist group that has fought as part of the rebel movement seeking to overthrow Mr Al Assad.

Yesterday, activists in Idlib reported severe shelling on the outskirts of the city and a huge security operation after units from the rebel Free Syrian Army moved to storm the central prison in an effort to free inmates.

Government troops also continued rocket and artillery strikes on the southern outskirts of Damascus, with clashes between rebels and regime forces also reported in Yarmouk, a densely populated area inside city limits.

Once home to a large Palestinian community, it became a relatively safe area for Syrian refugees fleeing violence nearby. That reputation for safety has now evaporated, with the area seen as another front line between regime forces and insurgents.

Warplanes also bombed neighbourhoods to the east of the capital, which have been devastated by the war.

The continued fighting comes even as the Syrian authorities urged exiled opposition figures to return home, in order to start a "political process" that Mr Al Assad says is the only way to end the conflict.

His plan has been dismissed by the opposition because it requires rebels to surrender unconditionally and leaves Mr Al Assad in power.

Syria's interior ministry promised opposition politicians, and anyone else who had fled the country, a guarantee of safe passage if they did decide to return.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed into neighbouring countries to escape burgeoning violence but reports from squalid refugee camps indicate some are now returning, preferring the dangers and hardship of a war zone that is at least home, to the desperation and destitution of life in exile as a refugee.

No political figures are expected to take up the government's offer, with even moderate opposition activists based inside Syria still subject to arrest or disappearance. Thousands of activists and protesters are being held in jails without charge, according to human rights groups, with torture rampant.

Well-known political figures have not been exempt from arrest. Abdul Aziz Al Kheir, a leading activist opposed to foreign military intervention but seeking an end to Mr Al Assad's rule, was abducted in September after returning to Damascus airport from an official trip to Moscow for talks with Russian officials.

The Syrian government says he was kidnapped by rebels on the airport road, at the time still in government hands. His political coalition, the National Coordination Committees - broadly tolerated by the regime because of its anti-intervention stance - says he was arrested at a security checkpoint by government forces. He has not been heard from since.

Other moderate, secular activists, including Mazin Darwish and Rami Hinawi, remain in custody for supporting the uprising, despite a series of official amnesties for prisoners.

State media yesterday said turnout in mosques was high following the regime's call for a show of strength by supporters. The claim could not be independently verified.

Opposition rallies used to start from mosques but peaceful demonstrations have all but halted in government-controlled areas in the face of a tight security crackdown.

"Popular participation was broad in the prayer in mosques across Syria for the return of safety and security to the homeland," Sana, the state news agency, reported.

Sheikh Mohammed Said Ramadan Al Bouti, a leading pro-regime cleric widely disdained by the opposition, prayed for Mr Al Assad's victory.

"Give your servant [Mr Al Assad] success on his good path," he said

Opposition activists countered with their own demonstrations in rebel-held areas, pledging allegiance to the uprising and to Islam.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. The Local Coordination Committees, an activists network, said at least 53 people had been killed nationwide by early evening yesterday.

psands@thenational.ae

With agencies