Syrian troops seize last rebel foothold in Qusayr

Government troops backed by Hizbullah guerrillas regain village close to Qusayr


Syrian government troops backed by Hizbullah guerrillas seized the western village of Buwayda today, extinguishing final rebel resistance around the town of Qusayr in a fresh success for president Bashar al-Assad.

The swift fall of Buwayda came just three days after rebels were swept out of Qusayr, denying them a previously important supply route into neighbouring Lebanon and giving renewed momentum to Assad’s forces battling a two-year civil war.

Activist sources said dozens of rebels, including a number of foreigner fighters, were captured alive in Buwayda, but there was no immediate word of their fate. “We can now declare Qusayr and the surrounding area to be a fully liberated area. We will go after the terrorists wherever they are,” an unnamed, senior Syrian army officer told state television from the rubble-filled streets of Buwayda.

Fighting flared elsewhere in Syria, including close to the capital Damascus and in the northern Aleppo province, which is expected to be the focus of renewed attack by Assad’s forces following the collapse of the Qusayr front.

Video posted on YouTube showed what activists said was a twin missile strike on the village of Kfarhamra, near Aleppo, sending a huge cloud of smoke billowing into the blue sky.

There was no immediate word on casualties. The United Nations estimates at least 80,000 people have died in the conflict.

UN humanitarian agencies launched a $5 billion appeal yesterday, the biggest in their history, to cope with the fallout from the fighting that has sent some 1.6 million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Syrian state television broadcast live from the deserted streets of Buwayda, 13-km northeast of Qusayr, showing destroyed buildings, debris-strewn roads and large numbers of boxes full of unused ammunition. “We sacrifice our blood and souls for you Syria,” a group of soldiers chanted in the background.

Rebel groups from across Syria had sent hundreds of men into the Qusair area to try to stave off the assault by the Syrian army and well-trained Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon, but they were rapidly overwhelmed, with activists complaining of a lack of arms and poor coordination.

“We want weapons, we want ammunition and advanced weapons,” he told Al Arabiya television via Skype. A Lebanese security source said at least 28 wounded fighters from Syria had been evacuated to hospitals in Western Bekaa and Rashaya. Hizbullah’s role has proved decisive, but it has also fueled sectarian tensions that have inflamed the region.

Hizbullah and its Iranian backers both follow the Shi’ite strand of Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims. Assad himself is from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Sunni Muslim preachers across the Middle East condemned Iran and its “Satanic” Shia allies in sermons today.

“Wake up, this is a war of religion,” hardline cleric Imad al-Daya told worshippers in the Gaza Strip, whose Palestinian Hamas rulers were once close allies of Assad and Hizbullah.