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Syrian govt seizes control of Qusair

Syrian rebels relinquished the town of Qusair under severe attack from Assad’s military operation.

A bombed house in Harem, Syria. Picture: Rahima Essop/EWN.

QUSAIR - Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of the border town of Qusair on Wednesday, a severe setback to rebel fighters battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Two weeks of heavy fighting reduced much of the town to piles of concrete, whole blocks flattened by shelling, with glass and rubble littering the roads as tired, delighted Syrian soldiers gathered at the bullet-riddled clock tower.

The dome of the local mosque was damaged by rocket fire, and the walls of a church smashed open.

"We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. ... Their fate is surrender or death," the Syrian armed forces command said in statement. "We will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land."

The fall of Qusair might make it harder to convince both sides to attend a proposed peace conference in the coming weeks, with Assad's fortunes on the rise and the opposition in disarray.

Signalling the diplomatic difficulties, international envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said the Geneva date for the conference had slipped back to July from June.

"The only sticking point is ... the Syrian component of the conference," he said after meeting US and Russian officials.

In a frank assessment of their defeat, an opposition group from Qusair said more than 500 rebels had died in two weeks of combat, with a further 1,000 wounded, leaving just 400 outgunned men struggling to hold onto the town.

Facing determined Hezbollah guerrillas from neighbouring Lebanon, the survivors decided to escape in the night through a corridor that the attackers said they had deliberately left open to encourage flight.

Some bodies still lay in the street; at least three men, sporting long beards, appeared to have been executed.

The capture of Qusair secures an important corridor through the central province of Homs, which links the Syrian capital Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

ESCAPE ROUTE

More than 80,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolt erupted in March 2011, and 1.6 million refugees have fled a conflict that has fuelled sectarian tensions across the Middle East, spilled over into Lebanon and divided world powers.

The muscular support of the Shi'ite group Hezbollah appears to have given Assad fresh impetus. The group said on Wednesday that the fall of Qusair showed the Syrian president was secure in power.

Underlining the risks for Lebanon, which was wrecked by its own civil war from 1975-1990, the head of the rebel Free Syria Army warned that it might target Hezbollah on its home turf.

Hezbollah's involvement also irked the Arab League, which issued a resolution after a meeting of its foreign ministers in Cairo expressing "strong condemnation" of all forms of foreign intervention, especially that by Hezbollah.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it hoped to gain access to Qusair to deliver food and medical aid to civilians.

Residents had long since fled the fighting, and there were few traces left of the rebels.

An opposition group called the 'Qusair Revolution' posted a statement on Facebook about what it said were the lessons learnt from the battle, accusing political exiles of ignoring them and some militia chiefs of worrying more about money than fighting.

In the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut, residents set off celebratory fireworks as news of Qusair's fall spread.

A senior Lebanese political source close to Hezbollah said the victory was a strategic success that would boost the morale of Assad's allies. He suggested that Hezbollah would not necessarily intervene directly in other battles but might offer indirect help to the Syrian army.

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