An explosion ripped through a gas pipeline near the town of Rastan in the central Syrian province of Homs and flames were seen rising from the site, a witness said on Monday, the second reported blast at an energy pipeline in Homs in a week.

The region has been the focus a crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on a pro-democracy protest movement, and increased fighting has been reported in the area between the army and insurgents in the last few weeks.

The fire lit the night sky and could be seen from kilometres away, said the witness, a resident of the region who gave his name as Abu Khalaf.

Rastan, 25 kms (15 miles) north of the provincial capital of Homs on the main Damascus-Aleppo highway, was the site at the end of September of one of the first battles between army defectors and loyalist forces.

Defectors have tried to avoid open fighting since then, opting for hit-and-run attacks on patrols and security compounds.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Louise Ireland)