Fresh Clashes in Syria's Homs, as Russians Flee

 Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions during clashes with government forces in Qusair, Homs province, Syria, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.

A fresh outbreak of fierce fighting has gripped the strategic Syrian city of Homs, a watchdog said Tuesday, as Russia warned of a protracted civil war and helped its citizens flee the violence.

A day after Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said a UN-backed peace mission has yet to yield even a "glimmer of hope," the 22-month conflict pitting rebels against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad showed no signs of abating.

At least 23 troops and pro-regime fighters were killed and dozens wounded in Homs, dubbed "the capital of the revolution" by the opposition, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"We have reports from the military hospital in Homs of up to 130 soldiers and pro-regime fighters killed or wounded in the past three days," the Britain-based watchdog said.

"So far, we have confirmed 23 of the men have died, but the actual number may be higher," said the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman.

The troops were killed in heavy clashes in western Homs, which Abdel Rahman said was crucial as it lies on a "strategic fault line" both for the rebels and the pro-Assad forces.

"The area is next to the main highway linking Damascus to the sea. Its importance has to do with access not only to the capital, but also to trade and arms coming into Syria from the Mediterranean," he said.

Activists on the ground said the city and province of the same name have returned to the forefront of conflict that the United Nations estimates has already cost more than 600,000 lives.

"Nowhere in Syria has the violence of the regime's onslaught against rebels been so intense as in Homs city," anti-regime activist Omar Shakir told AFP by telephone.

Bowled over by an increasingly daring rebellion, Assad's regime is reducing its territorial ambitions to focus on Damascus, central Syria and Alawite bastions, as it digs in for a long war, analysts say.

Homs lies on a key battlefront between the army and rebels, who have seized large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, according to activists.

"The army and security forces have focused their troops in areas they aim to take back, while abandoning other areas nearby," said Shakir. "Homs is the key to the regime's partition plan."

Meanwhile, key Assad backer Moscow said the conflict may become a drawn-out battle with no clear outcome.

"You know at first the forecasts were two to three months, four, and it is already two years," said Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bodganov.

"So the situation can develop in different ways. I think it could become protracted in nature."

Russia has come under repeated pressure from the West to call on Assad to quit but has insisted it is up to Syrians to decide their own fate.

On Tuesday, the Russian authorities helped up to 150 of their citizens escape Syria via neighbouring Lebanon, a diplomat said, insisting the airlift was not the start of an operation to evacuate Russians from the war-torn country.

"There are thousands of Russian citizens in Syria. The issue is that the Russian airline is no longer flying to Damascus, so we are helping some 100, maximum 150 people to leave Syria via Beirut, which is very close," the diplomat said on the condition of anonymity.

As well as claiming tens of thousands of lives, the conflict has forced some 600,000 people to flee Syria, mainly to neighbouring countries, according to the UN.

More than 12,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have sought refuge in Jordan in the past six days alone, Amman said.

Damascus accused Al-Qaeda of being behind a deadly attack in Hama and criticised Turkey for sheltering what it called "terrorists," in a message to the UN aired by state television.

"Armed terrorist groups headed by Al-Qaeda targeted citizens yesterday in the town of Salamiyeh in a cowardly terrorist act and destroyed the national hospital," the foreign ministry said in a letter to the UN secretary general and head of the Security Council.

The Observatory said at least 42 people, both civilians and pro-regime militiamen, were killed Monday when a suicide car bomb struck a building used by paramilitary forces in Salamiyeh, in the central province of Hama.

Meanwhile, warplanes and tanks pounded rebel strongholds in Damascus province on Tuesday, as a pro-regime daily reported clashes in a camp housing Palestinian refugees.

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