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Syria presses offensive in Homs’ Old City after talks break down

HOMS, Syria — The crackle of gunfire and the sound of shelling resounded in this central Syrian city Thursday as army troops pressed an offensive in the Old City following a breakdown in talks between the government and rebels.

Homs, long at the heart of the Syrian conflict, is witnessing some of its most intense violence in months as the military, using artillery, tanks, air power and infantry, moves in on a remnant rebel force that has held sway in the Old City for more that two years.

As the army advances, state-run media say, the rebels have indiscriminately shelled districts adjoining the Old City, killing seven people.

The narrow streets and alleys of the Old City make it difficult for the military to deploy tanks and armored vehicles. Opposition snipers cover all entrances to the area, the military says, complicating the government’s push along several fronts. Progress is measured building by building.

Both sides indicated that talks aimed at a negotiated solution to the standoff had broken down.

“With the complete failure of the negotiation committee, there is no (other) solution than a military one,” said an online statement attributed to a rebel group in the Old City.

Syrian officials have been pressing rebel fighters to lay down their arms in exchange for limited amnesty, while rebels have pressed instead for safe passage out of the Old City.

The opposition says about 1,000 people, including fighters and civilians, remain ensconced in the rubble-strewn remnants of neighborhoods that make up the Old City. The area has seen several phases of intense government bombardment during Syria’s 3-year-old conflict, and on Thursday columns of smoke once again rose above its streets.

In February, more than 1,400 people, including many former rebels, evacuated the Old City under a United Nations-backed plan. Many said there was little food to eat inside. State media have reported that dozens more ex-fighters have subsequently surrendered. But some fighters, including hard-line Islamists, refused to leave their longtime stronghold, despite chronic shortages of food, medical care and other essentials.

In Geneva, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy for Syria, expressed “deep regret” Thursday for the breakdown in the talks.

“It is alarming that Homs, whose people have suffered so much throughout these past three years, is again the theater of death and destruction,” Brahimi said. He urged both sides to return to the negotiating table.
 

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