Huge explosions rocked regime-held districts in the central Syrian city of Homs on Thursday, killing at least 40 and injuring at least 160 people, both civilians and government troops, according to several news sources. Some of the injured are in critical condition.
A massive ball of fire shot into the sky, followed by successive blasts that likely came from a weapons depot struck by a rebel rocket, the Associated Press reports. Intense fighting has reduced parts of Homs to a barren landscape of crushed concrete.
A Homs resident said thick smoke and dust could be seen from a distance, as explosions shook the ground and panicked those nearby.
Though Syrian rebels have lost ground to government forces in recent months, today's attack demonstrates that rebels can still strike back.
Residents reported hearing blasts more than an hour after the initial explosion, coming from a predominantly pro-regime area of the city.
The neighborhood, Wadi al-Dhahab, is majority Alawite, the same branch if Shi'a Islam as President Bashar al-Assad. Sunni Muslim insurgents have targeted Alawite areas, especially military positions, around the country with bombs and mortars.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization critical of the Assad regime, said a rocket may have struck an arms depot, igniting the fire.
A video posted online by activists showed a huge ball of fire over Homs neighborhoods.
An official at the governor's office in Homs said about 10 rockets slammed into the neighborhood of Zahra and the nearby sports stadium, sparking a large fire and causing casualties.
The explosions in Homs coincide with a rare trip by President Bashar Assad to Daraya, a former rebel bastion south of the capital, Damascus, to mark Army Day.
Assad's visit to Daraya is his first known public trip outside the capital, his seat of power, in more than a year. He visited the battered Baba Amr district in the central city of Homs after troops seized it from rebels in March 2012.
Syrian state television did not provide details of Assad's visit to Daraya but the presidency's Facebook page released a photo of Assad in a blue suit and tie, chatting with two soldiers before what appears to be a damaged building.
Daraya was held by rebels for months, and it took the army weeks of heavy fighting to regain control of the suburb earlier this year.
In August 2012, activists reported that regime forces went on a days-long killing spree after they seized Daraya from rebels.
The rebels suffered two major setbacks during a wide-ranging government offensive in central Syria. In June, Assad's army recaptured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border. Earlier this week, government troops took control of a district in Homs that had long been an opposition stronghold.
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against the Assad family's four-decade rule began in March 2011. The revolt later escalated into a civil war, which has uprooted millions of people from their homes.
Al Jazeera and wire services