Hezbollah-backed Syria troops rout rebels in Qusayr
DAMASCUS, Syria - Syria's army routed rebels from the strategic town of Qusayr on Wednesday, June 5, after a blistering 17-day assault led by Hezbollah fighters, scoring a major battlefield success in a drawn-out war that has killed thousands.
Qusayr is strategic because is located just 10 kilometers (six miles) from Lebanon and links Damascus to the coast, making it a conduit for fighters and weapons for both the army and rebels.
Its fall opens the way for President Bashar al-Assad's forces to move on the central city of Homs, where rebels still control many neighborhoods.
The rebels conceded they lost Qusayr after controlling it for a year, while the army said the "heroic victory" served as a warning that it would "crush" the 26-month uprising and bring "security and stability to every inch of our land".
State television aired footage of the deserted streets of Qusayr strewn with dust and bricks from shattered building facades, as well as cases of rockets fleeing rebels apparently abandoned in a hideout.
The army, in a statement carried by the official SANA news agency, appealed for civilians to return to the town, saying it would "show mercy" to those who put down their weapons.
The insurgents admitted they had lost Qusayr.
"Yes our brothers, this is a round that we have lost," the Syrian Revolution General Commission said, adding that rebels "will continue to fight the thousands of Lebanese mercenaries.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said the army and fighters from Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shiite movement, had "succeeded in taking Qusayr after an intense bombardment of the town overnight".
"The rebels have withdrawn to other areas because they were short of ammunition," it added.
Activists said separately that they fled with thousands of civilians, many of them injured, to Eastern Bweida, the only village in the area still under opposition control.
"We have nothing here, no medicine and barely any food... And now the bombing on Eastern Bweida is crazy. We cannot possibly take care of the displaced," said Abu al-Moatasem.
"We need a humanitarian corridor just to get them out," he told AFP over the Internet.
"Our revolution will continue. Even if all of us die here, revolutionaries in other provinces will continue fighting," he added.
Damascus ally Iran also welcomed the fall of Qusayr.
Tehran "congratulates the victory of the Syrian army and people over the 'takfiri' terrorists," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said, using a term for Sunni militants who comprise the majority of the country's rebels.
Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, and a close ally of Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The offensive on the Qusayr region was launched on May 19, spearheaded by Hezbollah and backed by Assad's forces.
Rebels put up fierce resistance, and were later joined by hundreds of Sunni Muslim reinforcements from Lebanon, most close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Doctors had appealed for the Red Cross to be allowed in to treat the wounded, but Syrian officials said this would only be permitted once the rebels had been defeated.
Civilians who had managed to get out of Qusayr described it as "a ghost town, heavily damaged and filled with the sound of bombs," the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.
Those who had escaped were mainly women and children, because men risked being killed at checkpoints, said spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.
On the diplomatic front, officials from Russia, the US and the UN gathered in Geneva to work on a peace conference amid fresh allegations the Damascus regime has used chemical weapons.
The officials hope to hammer out terms to get Assad's camp and the rebels to negotiate directly for the first time in a bid to end the conflict, which has cost more than 94,000 lives since March 2011.
But a tentative date for the conference, initially planned for early June, has slipped back into July amid wrangling over the exact guest list and agenda.
Pope Francis threw his weight behind the peace plan.
"These initiatives are to be encouraged, and it is hoped that they will lead to peace," he said.
The Geneva meeting comes as Britain said physiological samples from Syria had tested positive for sarin gas and that there was growing information the regime was using chemical weapons.
"The material from inside Syria tested positive for sarin," a government spokesperson said in London, referring to the deadly nerve agent gas.
It came a day after France said it had proof Assad's regime had used sarin gas in the war, and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said there were "reasonable grounds" to believe both sides had used chemical weapons.
However, Washington said it needed more evidence before concluding sarin had been used.
"We need to expand the evidence we have... before we make any decision," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
President Barack Obama has said the use of the deadly nerve agent would be a "game-changer" for the United States. - Rappler.com