DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government troops gained ground in clashes Friday in two rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, edging closer to a historic mosque and closing in on opposition fighters in the area, state television and activists said.
The advance came amid a wide offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces and as Syria's Western-backed opposition group met for the first time with the U.N. Security Council.
With about 1 million residents, Homs lies along a main artery linking the capital, Damascus, with regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast to the west. Homs has played a key role in the country's civil war, now in its third year, and the struggle for control of the city also has underscored the conflict's increasingly sectarian undertones.
Activists, who consider Homs "the capital of the revolution," say the regime wants to capture the entire city to include it in a future Alawite state — stretching from Homs to the coast — where Assad could possibly make his last stand. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels fighting to topple his regime are Sunnis.
In recent weeks, Assad's troops have captured several nearby rebel-held areas, including the towns of Qusair and Talkalkh near the border with Lebanon.
State TV said Friday that troops advanced in Homs' northern neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and Jouret el-Shayah.
The report said the government forces were getting close to Khaldiyeh's 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, famous for its nine domes and two minarets. On Monday, government troops shelled the mosque, damaging the tomb of Ibn al-Walid, a revered figure in Islam.
An activist in the city who only identified himself as Abu Bilal for fear of government reprisals said the troops were now about 50 meters (yards) from the mosque. "Resistance cannot stand up to tanks, warplanes and mortars," Abu Bilal said, speaking from the city via Skype.
In New York, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition told the U.N. Security Council it is ready to attend a peace conference if the Syrian government commits to having Assad hand over power to a transitional government.
The United States, which supports the opposition, and Russia, which supports the Assad government, are trying to convene a new conference in Geneva to try to get both sides to implement a plan adopted in the Swiss city a year ago. It calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers.
However, the demand that Assad relinquish power has halted the talks. Ahmed al-Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, later said that if Assad doesn't hand over power, "the regime will never step down, and its violent repression will continue."