Syrian rebels in deadly fight with Hizbullah in Lebanon

Britain voices ’grave concern’ over siege of town by Assad and Hizbullah forces

A damaged mosque is seen in Qusair village. Photograph: Rami Bleible/Reuters

A damaged mosque is seen in Qusair village. Photograph: Rami Bleible/Reuters

 

Hizbullah guerrillas fought a deadly battle with Syrian rebels in Lebanon’s eastern border region today, security sources said, in the latest eruption of Syria’s conflict on Lebanese soil.

Lebanese security sources said at least 12 rebels were killed in the fighting east of the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, but the toll would not be clear until bodies were retrieved from the remote and rugged border area.

One Hizbullah fighter also died, they said. Syria’s two-year-old conflict has increasingly sucked in its smaller neighbour, with fighting shaking the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and rockets hitting the Bekaa Valley and southern Beirut.

Shia Muslim Hizbullah, which supports president Bashar al-Assad, is fighting alongside his army to drive rebels from the Syrian border town of Qusair, while Lebanese Sunni Muslim fighters have joined the anti-Assad revolt.

Today’s fighting took place near Ain el-Jaouze in a strip of Lebanese territory which extends into Syria, the sources said, and the rebels may have been ambushed as they set up rockets to fire into Shia areas of the Bekaa Valley.

Rebels have said they will carry out attacks inside Lebanon in response to Hizbullah’s support for Assad’s assault on Qusayr, a strategic town for rebel weapons supplies and fighters coming into Syria from Lebanon.

The United Nations said yesterday that up to 1,500 wounded people might be trapped inside Qusayr and UN officials called for an immediate ceasefire to allow them to receive treatment.

The International Committee of the Red Cross asked for access, saying it was ready to enter Qusair immediately to deliver aid.

But Syrian state television said foreign minister Walid al-Moualem told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by telephone today that the Red Cross would have to wait until military operations in the area were complete.

Mr Moualem also expressed surprise at international concern over the fighting around Qusayr, saying the world had been silent when rebels took over the town 18 months ago and that Syria was now clearing it of “terrorism”, the television said.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of medical and security sources on the ground, said heavy fighting continued in the northern, eastern and southern outskirts of Qusayr today.

Security Council diplomats said Russia, which along with China has shielded Assad diplomatically at the United Nations, blocked a council declaration of alarm yesterday over the two-week-old siege of Qusayr.

The draft statement urged forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him “to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties and for the Syrian government to exercise its responsibility to protect civilians”.

It appealed to Assad’s government “to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access to impartial humanitarian actors, including UN agencies, to reach civilians trapped in al-Qusayr”.

Moscow’s move to block the statement highlights the chasm between Russia and Western nations on how to deal with the war in Syria despite joint efforts by Washington and Moscow to convene a peace conference in the next few weeks.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius suggested today that the talks could take place in July, echoing comments by officials in the Middle East.

He said the Syrian government and the opposition must attend what he called “the last chance” for a negotiated solution. “It’s not just about getting round the table and then asking what are we going to talk about. It needs to be prepared. That is why I say that the July date would be suitable,” Mr Fabius said.