DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's beleaguered opposition forces suffered another blow Monday as government troops captured a key district in the embattled city of Homs that has been a rebel stronghold since the beginning of the country's uprising.
The capture of Khaldiyeh is a setback for the rebels in the strategic central heartland, bringing President Bashar Assad's regime closer to its goal of capturing all of Homs, Syria's third largest city — including neighborhoods in its Old City that the rebels have held for more than a year.
The opposition acknowledged the loss of Khaldiyeh, although some activists said there were still scattered clashes in northern sectors of the district where rebels were still putting up a fight. A senior member of the Western-backed Syria National Coalition said the regime's gains in Homs are not irreversible.
"It will be difficult, but not impossible to gain back what we've lost in Homs," said Hadi Bahra, a member of the Coalition's political committee.
"Today they (Assad's forces) gain something and the day after tomorrow we take it back," he told The Associated Press from Saudi Arabia.
Syrian TV aired live footage from the neighborhood, showing troops roaming deserted streets and waving flags in front of shell-scarred buildings. Two opposition activists in the area who could normally be contacted via Skype were offline Monday.
State news agency SANA quoted an unnamed army commander saying the fall of Khaldiyeh would significantly boost army operations aimed at dislodging rebels from central areas of Homs. Khaldiyeh is important because it links other rebel-held districts in the heart of the city through a network of tunnels the rebel dug out to ferry weapons and other supplies, the commander said.
A month ago, the government launched a sweeping offensive to retake rebel-held areas of Homs and even if small pockets of resistance remain, its capture would be the second major setback to rebels in central Syria in as many months.
In early June, regime forces captured the strategic town of Qusair in Homs province near the border with Lebanon. Troops have also captured the town of Talkalakh, another border town in the province.
The province of Homs is Syria's largest, and runs from the Lebanese frontier in the west all the way to the border with Iraq and Jordan in the east. The city of Homs serves as a crossroads between the main highway from Damascus to the north and the road west, to the coastal region, which is a stronghold of Assad's Alawite sect.
Khaldiyeh had a population of about 80,000 but only some 2,000 have remained there as residents fled the violence, activists say. The heavy fighting over the past two years has caused extensive damage, with some buildings reduced to rubble.
In a report on Monday, Syrian state TV said "the Syrian army has restored security and stability in the whole neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in Homs."
A Syrian TV reporter embedded with troops in the area gave a live report standing in front of damaged buildings. He interviewed an army officer who said the troops fought a tough battle against rebels who mined buildings and fought from underground tunnels.
"As of this morning, our armed forces in cooperation with the (pro-government paramilitary) National Defense Forces have taken control of Khaldiyeh and are now cleansing the neighborhood," said the officer, surrounded by about a dozen soldiers and plainclothes security agents.
"The fate of terrorists will be under our feet," he said, claiming that all Homs will be soon "cleansed" of rebels.
The Observatory has said that government troops are backed by members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah, which did not acknowledge whether its members are fighting in Khaldiyeh, played a major role in a battle last month in Qusair, outside Homs, and lost scores of men there.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said regime forces have captured most of the neighborhood apart from some fighting on its southern areas.
Another opposition activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the battle in Khaldiyeh "is almost over." He acknowledged that troops are almost in full control of the area.
In the northern city of Aleppo, several rebel factions including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, attacked army posts in two neighborhoods in a an offensive titled "amputating infidels" the Observatory said.
It said rebels captured the neighborhood of Dahret Abed Rabbo and several buildings in Lairamoun there, and that eight government soldiers were killed.
Rebels have been on the offensive in Aleppo province and captured last week the strategic town of Khan el-Assal. Activists and state media said score of troops were killed there after their capture. The Western-backed Syrian National Council condemned the killings.
In the southern region of Quneitra, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, government troops captured the town of Mashara on Sunday night after intense fighting, the Observatory said.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.