GAZIANTEP, Turkey -- At least 40 people were killed Thursday in the Syrian city of Homs when opposition rebels attacked a weapons depot with rockets, setting off a series of explosions, according to opposition members.
Among the dead were government soldiers and civilians. An additional 120 were injured, many of them critically, after the rebels launched rockets into the Wadi Thahab neighborhood and two other districts, inhabited mostly by Alawites, members of President Bashar Assad’s minority sect, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group.
The Haqq Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups in Homs, claimed responsibility for the attack on the country’s Army Foundation Day. The brigade is part of the Syrian Islamic Front, made up of Islamist rebel groups across the country.
State media made no mention of a weapons depot and reported that the opposition targeted Wadi Thahab, at the southern entrance to the city, injuring 16 residents.
Online amateur video showed plumes of white smoke rising above the city’s horizon followed by a large explosion that sent a ball of flame into the sky. Abu Jabir, an activist who lives in the Waer neighborhood about four miles away, said he heard and felt the explosion.
Friends who live two miles from the weapons depot had their windows and doors blown out, he said.
The death toll was expected to rise because many people remain missing, according to the Syrian Observatory group.
Abu Jabir said the weapons depot had been a sports center before the uprising and he questioned its placement in the middle of a civilian neighborhood.
“This weapons warehouse had mortars, rockets and explosive material that the regime forces are using to hit the civilian neighborhoods,” he said.
His neighborhood, which has been cut off from food and medicine for several days, was shelled the previous night, he said.
The blast came just days after government forces retook control of Khalidiya, long a strategic and symbolic stronghold of rebels, and as Assad expressed confidence in victory over the opposition.
In an address to government forces on the 68th anniversary of Army Foundation Day that was published by state media, Assad said, “Had we in Syria not been confident of victory, we would not have been able to remain steadfast and resist the aggression for over two years.”
Assad’s forces have become emboldened in recent months as they have gained victories in the central province of Homs with the help of Iran and Shiite Muslim groups from Iraq and Lebanon, including the militant movement Hezbollah.
“You have shown the whole world that pressure and conspiracies, no matter how tough and varied, will only make you even more determined to confront challenges,” Assad said.