Syrian rebel mourns fallen comrade in Qusair 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian government forces and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah launched a
fierce campaign to seize more rebel territory in the border town of Qusair on
Saturday, sources on both sides of the conflict said.
Rebels fighting to
topple President Bashar Assad said additional tanks and artillery had been
deployed around opposition-held territory in Qusair, a Syrian town close to the
"I've never seen a day like this since the battle
started," said Malek Ammar, an activist speaking from the town by Skype. "The
shelling is so violent and heavy. It's like they're trying to destroy the city
house by house." More than 22 people in opposition-held areas were killed by
Saturday afternoon, most of them rebels, and dozens were injured, according to
the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebels are largely surrounded in
Qusair, a town of 30,000 that has become a strategic battleground. Assad's
forces want to take the area to secure a route between the capital Damascus and
his stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, effectively dividing rebel-held
territories in the north and south.
The opposition has been fighting
back, seeing it as critical to maintain cross-border supply routes and stop
Assad from gaining a victory they fear may give him the upper hand in proposed
US-Russia led peace talks next month.
Syria's two-year uprising against
four decades of Assad family rule began as peaceful protests but devolved into
an armed conflict that has killed more than 80,000 people.
are believed to have seized about two-thirds of Qusair, but the price has been
high and rebels insist they are preventing any further advances.
official close to Hezbollah told Reuters that the fighters' advances in Qusair
were happening at a very slow pace.
"We are in the second phase of our
plan of attack but the advance has been quite slow and difficult. The rebels
have mined everything, the streets, the houses. Even the refrigerators are
mined." Assad and Hezbollah forces have also been working to capture territory
in areas surrounding Qusair. Manar TV, Hezbollah's media wing, said the Syrian
army recaptured the Dabaa airport near the town, which rebels had seized several
weeks ago.SECTARIAN FIGHTING THREATENS REGION
The fighting in Qusair has
also highlighted the increasingly sectarian tone of Syria's political struggle,
which is not only overshadowing the revolt but threatening to destabilize the
region. Israel has launched two air strikes in Syria, and Lebanon, which fought
its own sectarian-fuelled 15-year civil war, has seen a rise in Syria-linked
Syria's Sunni Muslim majority has led the struggle to topple
Assad, and has been joined by Islamist fighters across the region, some of them
linked to the militant group al Qaeda.
Assad comes from the minority
Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and has relied on an army led mostly
by Alawite forces. He has been bankrolled by regional Shi'ite power Iran, a
longtime ally, and now increasingly by the country's Lebanese proxy, Shi'ite
Hezbollah, founded as a resistance movement to Israel.
Syrian rebels now
say that whatever the outcome, they will plot sectarian revenge attacks on
Shi'ite and Alawite villages on either side of the border.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory, which has a network of activists across Syria,
said Assad forces led by Hezbollah were trying to advance from three directions
in the city.
"Every area they didn't have a foothold in, they are trying
to gain one now," Rami Abdelraham, head of the Observatory, told Reuters by
Rebels from across Syria say they have sent some of their
units into Qusair.
Colonel Abdeljabbar al-Okaidi, the Aleppo-based
regional leader of a moderate, internationally-backed Supreme Military Council
said he and the Islamist brigade al-Tawheed had sent forces to the outskirts of
the town to help the Qusair fighters.
But activist Malek Ammar said no
forces had arrived yet and insisted the rebels locked in Qusair were still on
"No one is helping Qusair other than its own men," he said.
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