In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, President Bashar Assad, right, visits the Umayyad Electrical Station on May Day, a day after a powerful bomb hit the capital. in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (AP Photo/SANA)
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government troops battled their way Thursday into the central city of Homs in a push to oust rebels from the country's third largest urban center, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops loyal to President Bashar Assad regained control of the Wadi Sayeh district in the center of Homs by early morning.
The neighborhood is strategically important for the government forces as they try to dislodge opposition fighters from several of Homs' central districts that have been under rebel control for more than a year. There were no immediate details or reports of casualties from the latest fighting.
Homs, along with the capital of Damascus and Syria's largest city, Aleppo, has been a key battleground in the country's conflict, which is now in its third year and has claimed more than 70,000 lives.
The crisis started with protests against Assad's regime in the impoverished suburbs of the major cities, but quickly spread around the country, descending into a full-scale civil war.
In recent weeks, regime forces have been on a counter offensive to reverse rebel gains in and around Aleppo, where the opposition controls whole neighborhoods and large swathes of land around the northern city.
The army has also conducted massive sweeps through opposition strongholds around Damascus to oust rebels from their enclaves, from which they were increasingly threatening the capital, the seat of Assad power.
Regaining full control of Homs would be a psychological blow to the opposition, which holds the city as a symbol of Syria's uprising, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian rulers around the Middle East. Homs was the scene of massive street protests against Assad's regime in the first months of the uprising that began in March 2011.
Since then, Homs has seen some of the worst urban warfare in the Syrian civil war.
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