MAFRAQ, Jordan — Every day, rockets and mortars fired by regime forces rattle the streets of Homs. Armed rebels ambush government military checkpoints. Hatreds brew on either side of the avenues that divide the bloodstained Syrian city.
Homs has become the focus of the worst violence of the 11-month-old uprising, which appears to be morphing into a civil war with fearsome sectarian overtones. Syria's third-largest city has become the major center of both resistance and reprisal, fueled in part by increasingly bold army defectors who want to bring down President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime by force.
Early in the uprising, residents tried to recreate the fervor of Egypt's Tahrir Square, only to face siege upon siege by government forces for nearly a year. Homs now is a powerful symbol of the revolution.
With many neighborhoods outside government control, the regime's tanks and snipers are again opening fire in an offensive that began early Saturday to root out pockets of resistance and retake control of an area that holds great strategic importance in Syria.
"You'll be shot dead, if you go out," Samar Rahim, 32, told the Associated Press in this Jordanian farming town along the Syrian border, one week after she fled Homs with her family. "Snipers are firing at anyone in the streets. That's why we left everything behind."
Rahim and other refugees interviewed by the AP described living in fear, hunkering down inside their homes and desperately trying to protect their young children.
A woman who was three months pregnant was shot and killed when she ventured out for an errand, Rahim said. A 10-year-old boy on her street also was killed. Another neighbor was shot immediately when she opened her front door.
Homs, a city of about 1 million, has shown great sympathy for the opposition since the early days of the uprising. In April, protesters carried mattresses, food and water to the main Clock Square, hoping to emulate Cairo's Tahrir Square, where activists demanded the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
Security forces quickly raided the encampment, shooting at protesters and chasing them through the streets for hours. The onslaught only increased the intensity of the protests, fueling a revolt that has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family dynasty.
But as the conflict turns more violent, Homs has become the bloodied epicenter.
In the latest operation, which began Saturday, government forces have unleashed a relentless offensive against Homs, shelling residential areas as they try to retake control of the city. Hundreds are thought to have been killed there in the past five days.