LATEST UPDATE: 20/05/2013
Hezbollah-backed Syria troops take key town Qusair
Pro-government Syrian forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants stormed the rebel-held town of Qusair on Sunday, following a fierce aerial and artillery bombardment. The town is seen as of high strategic value by both regime and rebel forces.
By FRANCE 24
Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants on Sunday entered the town of Qusair – a strategic rebel stronghold linking Damascus to the coast and seen as key to the battle for control of the country.
The advance into the town began early on Sunday morning with a heavy bombardment using artillery and warplanes, which the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said left at least 52 people dead, including at least 21 rebels.
This was followed by a ground offensive on Sunday afternoon, with reports of pro-government troops engaging in house-to-house battles with rebel fighters.
Syrian state media said Assad’s troops took control of the main square, the area around the municipal building, a sports stadium and a local church. Syrian state TV said troops arrested rebel fighters who tried to flee Qusair dressed as civilians.
Qusair 'a strategic priority for both sides'
The town, located close to the Lebanese border along a land corridor between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, is seen as being of significant strategic value by both rebel and regime forces, and has been used to smuggle essential weapons and supplies from Lebanon across the porous frontier to opposition fighters inside Syria.
Qusair is also part of a coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the capture of Qusair and surrounding towns and villages has become a key objective for government forces.
Fighting has raged in the region for months, with Qusair besieged in recent weeks by pro-government gunmen backed by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group.
FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Beirut, Lucy Fielder, said Qusair has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the Syria uprising.
“It’s a strategic priority really for both sides,” she said. “It’s close to Lebanon so it’s been a key weapons route for the rebels and so that’s why both sides continue to fight over it.”
Attack casts doubt on Syria peace talks
The Syrian National Council, a key component of the main opposition National Coalition, denounced the "barbaric and destructive bombing" of Qusair. The Council warned that such fierce fighting could torpedo US-Russian attempts to organise a Syria peace conference scheduled for next month aimed at finding a political solution to the bloody conflict, which, according to the UN, has left more than 70,000 dead.
Those talks already looked like facing significant challenges even before Sunday’s offensive, with Assad saying in a newspaper interview on the weekend that he won’t step down before the end of his mandate in 2014 and that the United States has no right to interfere in his country’s politics.
Speaking to the Argentine newspaper Clarin, Assad insisted that a decision on Syria’s future was up to the Syrian people, not the US. He also said a decision on his political future must be made in elections, and not during such a conference.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in Syria increases the risk of Israel becoming further drawn into the conflict, with concerns that the Assad regime is supplying weapons to militants in Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that he is ready to act if Syria attempts to ship advanced Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, saying that “we are prepared for every scenario.” Earlier this month, Israel struck twice near Damascus, to intercept purported shipments to Hezbollah.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)