Car bomb explodes in central Syrian city largely populated by regime-dominating sect

BEIRUT (AP) - A car bomb exploded on Saturday at a neighbourhood in Syria's central city of Homs, which is largely populated by the Shi'ite offshoot sect that dominates the regime, while government troops pressed an offensive against fleeing rebels in nearby villages, state TV and activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria, says the car was booby-trapped. It says seven people died, according to preliminary reports. But the state-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV said the blast in the southern al-Nozah neighborhood of Homs was a suicide bomb. It reported the existence of casualties, but did not give a number.

It was not immediately possible to reconcile the different accounts.

The rare explosion in a neighborhood populated by Alawites, the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, comes as the conflict takes increasingly sectarian overtones.

The rebels are largely from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, and have been joined by Sunni fighters from other countries. The government's offensive in towns and villages south of the city, in contrast, has been backed by fighters from Lebanon's Shi'ite militant Hizbollah group.

Al-Nozah is a relatively new neighbourhood, roughly 40 years old, in south-east Homs. Along with the adjacent Al-Zahraa neighbourhood, it is home to one of the biggest Alawite communities in Syria and is widely seen as pro-Assad.

Government troops have made a major push in recent weeks to reclaim rebel-held areas in Homs province, the linchpin linking the capital Damascus with Alawite strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. The rebels are in control of the center of Homs city, including its old quarter, and are besieged by regime forces in the outlying areas of the city.

Many towns north of Homs are rebel-controlled but government and Hizbollah forces are clearing rebels from villages and towns to the south of the city. The government on Wednesday recaptured the town of Qusair after a grueling three-week offensive that caused heavy losses on both sides and trapped civilians in the area for weeks.

Buoyed by that victory, government troops have pushed on from Qusair. Syrian state TV said Saturday that government troops took control of al-Buweida village between Qusair and Homs city, after intensive clashes were reported there earlier.

Mr Abu Bilal Al-Homsi, an activist in the old quarter of the city of Homs who has links with several rebel groups, said through Skype that rebels sustained heavy losses late on Friday as they attempted to flee the village with their wounded and civilians.

Mr Al-Homsi asked to be identified by his alias for security concerns.

Pro-regime media outlets claim government forces are preparing to move to recapture the contested northern city of Aleppo next.