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Syrian rebels say they face 7,000 government troops

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels defending the besieged Baba Amro district of the city of Homs reported further fighting overnight and said they faced at least 7,000 troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Members of the Free Syrian Army take positions at al-Bayada, Homs, February 29, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

A senior official of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Mohaimen al-Rumaid, told Reuters on Thursday opposition forces elsewhere in Syria had been ordered to step up the fight against government forces to relieve pressure on Homs, which has been under sustained artillery and rocket bombardment for 26 days.

“Infantry fighting goes on. The men are still resisting and Assad’s army is shelling Baba Amro but it has not gone deep beyond its parameters,” said Rumaid, a member of the Higher Military Council overseeing the Free Syrian Army.

“From Qamishly in the east to Idlib in the north and Deraa in the south Syrian Free Army brigades are promising military operations in revenge for Baba Amro and operations to disrupt supplies from reaching Homs,” Rumaid said from an area in Turkey near the border with Syria.

Rumaid said Assad was banking on overrunning Baba Amro, which has become a symbol of the uprising, to send the message that he would put down the revolution across the country.

“Baba Amro is surrounded by no less than 7,000 troops,” he said, adding that he could not say how many rebels there were but predicting that they would offer strong resistance.

“Baba Amro will be the straw that will break the regime’s back. All of Syria is turning into Baba Amro,” Rumaid said.

“I was in the special forces before I defected and I saw how one fighter early in the uprising would hold off a whole brigade in an urban warfare setting. The morale of the fighters is also higher than the loyalist troops,” he added.

Rumaid acknowledged, however, that the rebels in Baba Amro were far outgunned, since they had mainly medium machineguns and mortars to counter armoured forces backed by heavy artillery and rockets.

Diplomats said earlier that the feared 4th Armoured Division was mounting a drive to “finish off” the rebels in Baba Amro.

The 4th Armoured Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, has won a reputation for ruthlessness during the past year of revolt against the government.

Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Philippa Fletcher