Syrian regime, Hezbollah assault rebel stronghold

AP and Reuters, BEIRUT and Tripoli, Lebanon

Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 6

Syrian government forces pushed deeper into a strategic opposition-held town near the Lebanese border yesterday, battling rebels in fierce street fighting, Syrian state-media said. An activist group said at least 23 elite fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group fighting alongside regime troops have been killed in the clashes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the country’s civil war, said that in addition to the deaths, more than 100 Hezbollah members have been wounded in the fighting around the town of al-Qusayr. If confirmed, the casualties would be a significant blow to the Shiite group, which has come under harsh criticism in Lebanon for its involvement in the war.

A staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime and is known to have sent fighters to Syria.

The Observatory, which relies on a wide network of activists in the ground in Syria, cited “sources close to the militant group” for the death toll, but declined to reveal their identity. It said at least 50 Syrian rebels were also killed in the battle for al-Qusayr on Sunday, including two opposition commanders.

For weeks, fighting has raged around al-Qusayr, a town in the central province of Homs that has been under rebel control since early last year. The intensity of the fighting reflects the importance that both sides attach to the area. In the regime’s calculations, the town lies along a strategic land corridor linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland. For the rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni al-Qusayr has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to opposition fighters inside Syria.

On Sunday, the regime launched an offensive to regain control of al-Qusayr, with Hezbollah’s elite fighters pushing into the town from the east and south, an opposition figure said.

He said Hezbollah troops took control of the main square and the municipal building in the center of the city in a few hours. By the end of the day, they pushed out rebel units, from most of the town, he added.

He said fighting was focused in the northern part of the town yesterday. The account matched that of Syria’s SANA news agency, which said al-Assad’s troops took control of most of the town. State-run television said forces restored stability to the entire eastern front of the town, killing scores of “terrorists” there.

Residents on the Lebanese side of the border across from al-Qusayr reported seeing more than 30 plumes of smoke billowing from Syria and hearing the heavy thud of artillery and airstrikes on Sunday and yesterday morning.

Lebanese security officials confirmed at least four funerals were being held yesterday morning for Hezbollah fighters or their supporters killed in Syria.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, three people were killed and about 40 wounded in two days of fighting, Lebanese security sources said, as sectarian violence spilled over from Syria.

Rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire shook the city overnight, but the exchanges had tapered off into sporadic sniper fire by daytime.

Syrian activists say the fighting in Tripoli, where an Alawite minority lives on a hill, was ignited by tensions over the assault on al-Qusayr.