|The opposition says hundreds of people have been killed or injured following the military assault on Homs [AFP]
The Syrian city of Homs has been under attack for nearly a week, as government forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad try to regain control of opposition-held areas.
The city, in the centre of the country, has emerged as the capital of the uprising and its Revolutionary Council runs a virtual state-within-a-state, providing services and fielding its own armed groups.
This latest army offensive, which began on the night of February 3, was interpreted by leaders of Homs' uprising as a response to their recent gains.
Members of the Revolutionary Council said fighters in the Homs province had taken advantage of the presence of Arab League monitors in December and January to reinforce themselves and bring supplies in from Lebanon, knowing the regime would be limited in its ability to obstruct them at that time.
Fighters announced that they attacked security forces in Rastan, expelled them from Talbiseh, and took control of more territory in Homs city, launching two attacks on the State Security and Military Security headquarters.
On February 3, the day government forces began their offensive, opposition fighters attacked at least three army checkpoints, including one at Homs’ Qahira roundabout, where they reportedly seized a large armoured vehicle - either a personnel carrier or a tank.
They also captured many Syrian soldiers and released a video of interviews with the officers of the captured unit.
After the attack on the Qahira checkpoint, security forces shelled the neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh. Opposition activists say shelling started around 8:30pm and lasted until 4am, with scores of civilians killed.
Opposition leaders on the ground said up to 250 mortars landed in the area, and that most of the shells were shot from a citadel on high ground, and from the State Security headquarters located in the nearby Ghota district.
The Revolutionary Council said there had been no exchange of gunfire on the ground, just shelling from locations where government forces could operate safely. This suggests they were unable to actually attack Khaldiyeh with ground troops.
"It was a massacre," said one senior leader of the uprising in Homs. "After many failed invasions, Assad's army stopped attempts to enter the area because of the strong resistance of the Free Syrian Army ... So it started hitting it by mortars."
"Many troops from the Free Syrian Army moved from Bab Sbaa and Bab Amr to Khaldiyeh to defend the area.
"The cowards did not dare to face us in a fair battle. They just bombed the civilian buildings from a distance."
- Revolutionary Council leader
"But they found no Assad troops or vehicles to shoot at. The cowards did not dare to face us in a fair battle. They just bombed the civilian buildings from a distance.
"We were trying to provide blood bags and snipers were targeting us. Women and kids were crying. Doctors were dispirited. There was a catastrophe."
The opposition leader went on to say that Assad's opponents in Homs had become increasingly desperate after the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution condemning the violence in Syria.
"People want to announce jihad ["struggle"]," he said. He added that he worried that the political leadership on the ground would lose control of the armed men.
The Revolutionary Council later said it had documented the deaths of 105 civilians from the shelling. About 100 others were seriously wounded and 25 more missing or captured.
One opposition fighter was reported killed and five others wounded.
While the shelling focused on Khaldiyeh, there were also casualties reported by the opposition in the neighbourhoods of Qusur, Jurt Ashayah, Inshaat, Karm al-Zeiton and Bab Tadmur.
When some wounded and dead were taken to Jurt Ashayah, they were attacked by government forces in armoured vehicles, according to opposition members.
Some of the injured were reportedly captured, along with those trying to evacuate them.
'Controlling most of Homs'
After the initial assault on Khaldiyeh, more areas of Homs were hit by government forces in the following days, and opposition leaders reported that soldiers were shooting from some checkpoints.
"They are afraid to move troops into the neighbourhoods," one leader said, interpreting the indirect attacks as a sign of the regime’s weakness.
"We ordered our armed groups to remain silent for now," he said. "We don’t want them to attack or engage with the army because we don’t have much ammunition."
Homs has been under siege for months, and its opposition leaders fear they will run out of supplies within days. Internet, mobile phones and land lines are cut off in most of the city.
Hama’s Revolutionary Council offered the Homs Revolutionary Council help with food, medicine, arms and ammunition.
The two councils co-operate closely and the team from Hama, about 30km north of Homs, was waiting for an opening to provide help.
As shelling continued, the fighters expected an eventual ground assault. But despite the increased crackdown, leaders of the Homs Revolutionary Council insisted they had lost no ground.
"We control most of Homs," one member of the council’s executive council said.
Members of the Alawite community in Homs, as well as security officials, claimed that Alawites had been killed by mortars originating from Sunni areas.
Since the uprising began in March 2011, tensions between different religious communities have been rising in the city, which is home to many members of the Alawite minority to which Assad himself belongs.
In the latest report of sectarian violence, some four families were said to have been stabbed to death on Wednesday in the Wadi Iran area - renamed Wadi Arab by the opposition, which accuses Syria's ally, Iran, of assisting in Assad's crackdown.
Worried about causing further sectarian strife, however, one leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council was reluctant to admit that many victims of the crackdown were Sunni Muslims, and had been killed by Alawites.
'Crying and dancing'
Government troops tried to enter the Inshaat neighbourhood of Homs on Wednesday, in preparation for an attack on the adjacent opposition stronghold Bab Amr.
"We go to the funeral at noon, cry for our martyrs, and then we go at night to the demonstration and dance for a few minutes of freedom. "
- Revolutionary Council leader
Security forces reached Inshaat’s Hikma hospital but the Revolutionary Council said one of its armed groups halted the attack, destroying two tanks and three military vehicles.
The council, which has a sophisticated documentation team, claimed that 559 people had been killed since the government offensive began, including 43 children and 16 women.
"Today is terrible as usual but we are used to dying every day and dancing every day," one leader of the council said on Thursday.
"We go to the funeral at noon, cry for our martyrs, and then we go at night to the demonstration and dance for a few minutes of freedom.
"Homs will not surrender. They are bombing us from a distance, they don't dare to enter the city. They think they will destroy our will and resistance.
"We are waiting for them and we will defeat them in our neighbourhoods. Finally they will enter the city. We are waiting for them."
This is the first in a series of articles by Nir Rosen on Syria. He recently spent two months in the country, but left before the offensive on Homs began.