Exiled opposition leader visits Syria

Exiled Moaz Alkhatib visited war-stricken Syria for the first time since fleeing last week.

Exiled Moaz Alkhatib last week visited war-stricken Syria for the first time since fleeing in 2012. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - Exiled opposition figure Moaz Alkhatib visited Syria on Sunday for the first time since fleeing last year, as rebels said President Bashar al-Assad's forces embarked on counter-offensives in various parts of the country.

In the central city of Homs, heavy fighting broke out between loyalist forces and opposition brigades dug in preparation for an onslaught, opposition sources said.

Opposition campaigners said the counter-offensive appeared to be part of a new strategy by Assad focusing on regaining three rebel-held regions that pose a threat to his grip on Damascus and supply lines from coastal regions, where a large proportion of his minority Alawite sect live.

"We are probably seeing the first stage of a major onslaught on Homs," said Mohammad Mroueh, a member of an opposition 'crisis committee'.

Alkhatib, president of the Syrian National Coalition, a group of anti-Assad interests that has sought international recognition, crossed into northern Syria from neighbouring Turkey and toured the towns of Jarablus and Minbij.

Alkhatib, a 52-year-old former preacher at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was chosen in November to head the SNC and his visit appeared aimed at overcoming scepticism among some of the disparate rebel forces towards his Cairo-based Coalition.

He has said he is ready for talks with representatives of Assad's government to seek a political solution to a conflict which erupted nearly two years ago and has descended into a civil war in which around 70,000 people have been killed.

The SNC says any talks must focus on Assad's departure while rebel leaders insist he depart before talks can start.

Before entering Syria, Alkhatib attended a meeting of 220 rebel commanders and opposition campaigners in the Turkish city of Gaziantep to elect an administration for Aleppo province, home to 6 million people.