Syrian rebels gained control of a military missile base near Homs, the Saudi news network Al Arabiya reported on Sunday. According to the report the majority of soldiers manning the base, including the Alawite commanding officer, defected.
In response, the Syrian government forces pounded parts of central Homs province Sunday in a renewed push to regain control of rebel-held territories, and activists said at least 38 people were killed by shelling there over the past 24 hours.
The main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, elected a Kurdish dissident as its new leader in hopes of overcoming the disorganization and infighting that has hobbled the opposition since the popular revolt against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.
The government assault focused on the town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, where activists reported at least six people died on Sunday. Three others were killed in shelling of the town of Talbiseh, north of the city of Homs, according to the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The mortars came down on Qusair by the dozens," said Abu al-Hoda, a Qusair-based activist. He said women and children have been huddled for days in basements of apartment buildings, too fearful to come out. On Saturday, 29 people died in violence across Homs province, according to activists.
Regime forces also unleashed a new round of heavy shelling and sent reinforcements to a mountainous area near the coastal city of Latakia, where hundreds of rebels have set up a base and fierce fighting has raged in recent days.
The fighting between government troops backed by helicopter gunships and armed groups in the area of Haffa began on Tuesday. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Observatory, said at least 58 soldiers have been killed and more than 200 wounded in the operation there since it began.
He said the heavy losses indicate the seriousness of the challenge in the mountainous area where "hundreds" of rebels are entrenched. His estimated death toll could not be independently verified.
State-run news agency SANA said "terrorist groups" in Haffa attacked public and private institutions on Saturday and committed "heinous" crimes against civilians, setting fire to the national hospital and forcing people to leave their homes. It said troops killed a number of them and arrested several others, adding it was still pursuing gunmen and working to restore security to the area.
Six children were among 10 people killed by a shell that exploded in a house where they had taken cover during the fighting in the region on Saturday, the Observatory said.
Activists claim more than 13,000 people have been killed in violence since the uprising began 15 months ago. International envoy Kofi Annan brokered a cease-fire that was supposed to take effect on April 12 but never really took hold.
Armed rebels have stepped up their attacks on government troops recently, taking their fight against Assad to the capital Damascus, which on Friday saw some of the most intense fighting since the uprising began.
In northern Syria, thousands took part Sunday in the funeral for nine people who died in reported shelling Saturday night of the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province.
Amateur video posted online by activists Sunday showed a large crowd taking part in the funeral procession. The victims were placed on makeshift stretchers which were carried in the streets as people chanted and mourned their death.
The opposition Syrian National Council chose Abdulbaset Sieda, a 56-year-old activist who has been living for many years in exile in Sweden, as their new leader. He was the only candidate to replace liberal opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun for the three-month presidency. He was elected unanimously during an SNC meeting Saturday night in Istanbul that stretched into early hours Sunday.
The Paris-based Ghalioun had presided over the council since it was created last August but recently offered to step down over mounting criticism of his leadership and repeated renewals of his three-month term. Several prominent Syrian dissidents have quit the group calling it an "autocratic" organization no better than Assad's authoritarian rule.
They also complained the group was dominated by Islamists, including the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC's international backers have repeatedly appealed for the movement to pull together and work as one unit. The SNC itself has been plagued by infighting, hampering efforts by Western and Arab nations to help the opposition.
Sieda is a secular member of Syria's minority Kurdish community. He is seen as a neutral, consensus figure and has said his priority would be to expand the council to include more opposition figures, particularly from Syria's religious minorities.
In his first comments at a news conference in Istanbul, Sieda pledged to work on restructuring the SNC to make it more inclusive and to reach out to other groups within the opposition.
"We are now in the process of repairing the relationship between the SNC and the forces working inside Syria so that we may reach common grounds between us," he said. "There will be changes in the coming weeks both within the forces inside the SNC and the forces that will hopefully join the group," he added.
His elevation to the post of SNC chief could be part of an attempt to appeal to Syria's significant Kurdish minority, which has largely stayed on the sidelines of the uprising. The community is deeply suspicious that Sunni Arabs who dominate the opposition will be no more likely to provide them greater rights than what they have had under Assad's regime.
Sieda said he was already engaged in talks with the main Kurdish umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council, whose delegates walked out of an SNC gathering in March after the group ignored Kurdish demands it support political decentralization and Kurdish rights in a post-Assad state.
"He is an academic. He's also well-known, a moderate man. We shouldn't claim that he has Islamic tendencies or secular tendencies. He has been approved and accepted by everyone," Abdel Hamid Al Attassi, a member of the SNC, said of Sieda.
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