DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Two car bombs exploded Wednesday in a government-held district of Syria's battleground city of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100, state media said.
The blasts hit a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect in the central city, where government forces have been imposing a heavy siege on rebel-controlled districts.
Syria's uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule in March 2011, has since evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against an Assad government that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Homs, a city of about 1 million, has shown great sympathy for the opposition since the early days of the uprising. The city was once known as "the capital of the Syrian revolution" before government forces captured large parts of once rebel-held neighborhoods such as Baba Amr and Khaldiyeh.
State news agency SANA said one car blew up near a sweets shop in a busy street and about half an hour later another car exploded about 100 meters (yards) away "in order to inflict the biggest numbers of casualties among citizens."
SANA said the wounded included its photographer in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, adding that the blasts went off in the Karm el-Loz neighborhood. It said the explosion that struck a busy street also wounded 107 people.
It said the dead and wounded in the explosions included women and children. Syrian TV showed several shops and cars on fire. Bloodied people could be seen being carried on stretchers into ambulances. "As ambulances and fire engines were working in the first site, the second blast went off, increasing the number of casualties," a witness in the city told The Associated Press. The man, who asked that his name not be given for fear of reprisals, said he counted eight bodies of people killed in the second blast.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the blasts killed 21 people including children. It added that the number "is expected to rise" because some of the wounded are in critical conditions.
The Observatory said the dead might have included some pro-government gunmen. On March 27, a blast occurred in an Alawite neighborhood in the city, killing and wounding dozens of people. The blasts in Homs came hours after Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters captured the last major town in the Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon after weeks of intense fighting.
Syrian TV and Lebanon's Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar station said the town of Rankous fell earlier Wednesday, depriving the rebels their last major base in the rugged area. President Bashar Assad's forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have been on the offensive in the Qalamoun region since November when they captured most of the border area with Lebanon. The six-month battle forced tens of thousands of Syrians to flee to safety in Lebanon.
The capture of Rankous and other towns and villages has cut a major supply route for weapons and fighters into the country from eastern Lebanon. Syrian TV aired live footage from inside Rankous on Wednesday saying that the operation to capture the town lasted 18 hours. Much of the homes appeared intact in the town's center, overlooked by a mosque with a green dome atop a hill.
"Rankous returns to the nation and is under the control of the Syrian Arab Army," a TV announcer said. The Observatory reported that troops and Hezbollah fighters are in full control of the town. It added that the fighting is continuing in a nearby area known as Rankous Farms.
Also Wednesday, the U.N. refugee agency said it had delivered aid to a rebel-held area of the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo in a "rare and risky" operation carried out in cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent.
UNHCR said in a statement that the operation took place following an agreement with the Syrian government and the opposition to observe a brief cease-fire that was respected by both sides. It said two trucks packed with blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits and kitchen sets and food were delivered to the needy in the besieged neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr in eastern Aleppo.
UNHCR staff observed a "dire" humanitarian situation in the area, including acute shortage of food, water and medicine, the statement said. UNHCR last accessed the area in June 2013.
Mroue reported from Beirut.