Syrian government forces pushed deeper into a strategic opposition-held town near the Lebanese border Monday, battling rebels in fierce street fighting, Syrian state-media said. An activist group said at least 23 elite fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group fighting alongside regime troops have been killed in the clashes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the country’s civil war, said that in addition to the deaths more than 100 Hezbollah members have been wounded in the fighting around the town of Qusair. If confirmed, the casualties would be a significant blow to the Shiite group, which has come under harsh criticism at home in Lebanon for its involvement in Syria’s civil war.
A staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime and is known to have sent fighters to aid government forces. The Lebanese group’s growing role in the civil war next door also points to the deeply sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria, in which a rebellion driven by the country’s Sunni majority seeks to overthrow a regime dominated by the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Observatory, which relies on a wide network of activists in the ground in Syria, cited “sources close to the militant group” for the death toll but declined to reveal their identity. It said at least 50 Syrian rebels were also killed in the battle for Qusair on Sunday, including two opposition commanders.
For weeks, fighting has raged around Qusair, a town in the central province of Homs that has been under rebel control since early last year.
The intensity of the fighting reflects the importance that both sides attach to the area. In the regime’s calculations, Qusair lies along a strategic land corridor linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland. For the rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Qusair has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to opposition fighters inside Syria.
On Sunday, the regime launched an offensive to regain control of Qusair, with Hezbollah’s elite fighters pushing into the town from the east and south, an opposition figure said.
He said Hezbollah troops took control of the main square and the municipal building in the center of the city in a few hours. By the end of the day Sunday, they pushed out rebel units, including the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, from most of Qusair, he added Monday on condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation by both sides.
He said fighting was focused in the northern part of the town on Monday.
The account matched that of Syria’s state news media, which said President Bashar Assad’s troops took control of most of Qusair on Monday. State-run TV said forces restored stability to the entire eastern front of the town, killing scores of terrorists there.
Residents on the Lebanese side of the border just across from Qusair reported seeing more than 30 plumes of smoke billowing from inside Syria and hearing the heavy thud of artillery and airstrikes late into the night Sunday and on Monday morning.
“Nobody could sleep last night from the sounds of battle,” said Ali Jaafar, deputy mayor of the Lebanese border town of Hermel, adding that residents did not send children to school Monday for fear of fighting spilling over into Lebanon.
Before Sunday’s offensive, Qusair had been ringed by regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an Assad ally, for several weeks.
Lebanese security officials confirmed at least four funerals were being held Monday morning for Hezbollah fighters or their supporters killed in Syria. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
Army units “restored security and stability” to most of the city on Monday and killed “many terrorists,” the majority of them foreign fighters who have been fighting alongside opposition forces, the state news agency said. The military also destroyed rebel hideouts and seized “large amounts of weapons and ammunition,” it said, adding that government troops are fighting pockets of resistance in several districts of Qusair Monday.
The Syrian regime claims there is no civil war in the country but that the army is fighting foreign-backed terrorists trying to topple Assad’s government.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011.
At least 1.5 million Syrian who fled civil war have sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, while millions more have been displaced inside Syria and are in urgent need of basic aid, according to the United Nations.
An international aid organization, Oxfam, appealed for more funds to help Syrian refugees, saying warmer weather will increase health risks due to lack of shelter, water and basic sanitation in Lebanon and Jordan.
The Britain-based group said in a statement Monday that diarrhea and skin infections have already been noted among refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. The two countries host the bulk of 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
Oxfam said it needs $53 million dollars to improve access to water and proper sanitation for Syrian refugees. So far the aid group has received $10.6 million dollars.