Syrian troops attack villages near border

Rebels continued to suffer more casualties as the army tightened their grip of Syria.

A group of rebels on a tank in Darkoush, Syria. Picture: Rahima Essop/EWN.

BEIRUT - Syrian troops and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters pushed toward villages near Qusair on Thursday, a day after driving rebels from the border town shattered in weeks of combat.

Insurgents seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were putting up a fierce fight around the villages of Debaa and Buwayda as their opponents attacked rebel-held territory, activists and a photographer in the area said.

The villages were enduring heavy artillery fire, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The fall of Qusair after a two-week offensive by Hezbollah fighters and Assad troops backed by warplanes was a significant victory for the president as he battles an uprising-turned-insurgency in which more than 80,000 people have been killed since March, 2011.

Qusair is in central Homs province, which borders Lebanon in the west and Iraq in the east. Debaa is 5 km northeast of Qusair and Buwayda another 7 km in the same direction.

Many Sunni Muslim fighters and civilians are thought to have fled there via a route left open by pro-Assad forces besieging Qusair, a town long used as a rebel supply route from Lebanon.

According to the exiled opposition Syrian National Coalition, thousands of wounded people and civilians are in Buwayda alone.

A security source close to Syrian forces said they had deliberately opened exit routes from Qusair in hope of avoiding a costly fight to the death inside the town, where hundreds of civilians, along with about 1,000 wounded people, were said to be still living out of an original population of 30,000.

But the ruined town was empty when jubilant Syrian troops and Shi'ite Hezbollah fighters finally overran the centre.

Heavy civilian casualties may have been averted for now, but rebels say the risk remains as Assad's forces pursue their foes.

Assad loyalists say the capture of Qusair not only cuts rebel supply lines, but will also help troops regain control of central Syria and isolate rebel bastions in the north and south.

It also strengthens the Syrian leader's hand before a peace conference which Russia and the United States are trying to organise under UN auspices in Geneva, possibly in July.