BEIRUT

Middle East

Syrian troops take three key towns near Qusair

BEIRUT: Syrian troops Monday captured three villages in the strategic Qusair area of Homs province, allowing them to cut supply lines to rebels inside Qusair town, a military officer told AFP.

“The attack on the villages of Western Dumayna, Haidariyeh and Esh al-Warwar began this [Monday] morning,” the lieutenant colonel said on condition of anonymity.

“The fighting lasted for three hours until we established control over these villages, which are considered strategic because they lie on the road between the cities of Homs and Qusair and will allow us to block supplies to the militants in Qusair,” he said.

Western Dumayna is some 8 kilometers north of the rebel-held town of Qusair, which has been at the center of fierce battles between opposition forces and the Syrian military, backed by pro-Damascus Hezbollah.

Last week, activists said the town of Qusair was surrounded by regime forces on three sides and that some 25,000 residents were still inside.

A military source Friday said leaflets were dropped over the town warning residents to leave, but activists denied the claim and said there was no safe passage out.

The daily Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the Syrian regime, said Monday the Syria military had halted operations in the area to allow civilians to leave safely.

But residents and activists around the town said they could still hear fighting and shelling in the vicinity.

The area has been a strategic boon to the rebels, who used it as a base from which to block the main road from Damascus to the coast, impeding military movement and supply chains.

It is also important because of its proximity to Lebanon.

The regime has made recapturing it a key objective. Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly said last month that fighting in the area was the “main battle” his troops were waging.

Activists say regime forces there are backed by fighters from Hezbollah, as well as members of the National Defense Force, a pro-regime militia.

Also Monday, an activist group said Syrian troops had taken full control of a town near the highway linking the capital Damascus with Jordan, a new advance in the regime’s campaign to drive rebels from the strategic south.

Rebels seeking to topple Assad are trying to carve a pathway from the Jordanian border through the southern province of Deraa, in what is seen as their best shot at capturing Damascus.

A few weeks ago, they scored significant gains, but have since suffered setbacks in a regime counteroffensive.

In recent days, regime troops and rebel fighters battled over Khirbet Ghazaleh, a town near the Damascus-Jordan highway.

Regime forces retook Khirbet Ghazaleh Sunday and rebels withdrew from the area, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Troops reopened the highway, restoring the supply line between Damascus and the contested provincial capital of Deraa, he said. Regime forces were carrying out raids and searching homes Monday in Khirbet Ghazaleh.

Damascus, still overwhelmingly under regime control, is the ultimate prize in a largely deadlocked civil war.

Rebels control large parts of the countryside in northern Syria, but those areas are further away from the capital than the Jordanian border.

Arab officials and Western military experts have said Middle Eastern powers opposed to Assad have stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels, with Jordan opening up as a new route.

The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war. Over the weekend, the Observatory issued a new death toll, estimating that more than 80,000 Syrians have been killed, almost half of them civilians. In February, the U.N. said at least 70,000 Syrians were killed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2013, on page 8.

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