BEIRUT: Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters have reportedly advanced into the main square of besieged Qusair, with fierce battles continuing overnight Monday for control of the strategic city near the Lebanese border.
At least 40 people were killed, activist organizations said, in battles that saw forces loyal to President Bashar Assad enter the center of the city for the first time in a siege that has lasted some six weeks.
A media activist inside Qusair, who gave only his first name, Hussein, denied regime forces had entered the city, insisting “the news is only coming from regime media. It didn’t happen.”
The activists and opposition groups said they feared a “massacre” after troops moved in, in an attempt to cement control of the city. Dozens were injured and hundreds of civilians were reportedly attempting to flee to neighboring Lebanon.
“It is the biggest assault yet, they [the regime] are using all their firepower,” an activist, using the pseudonym Mohammad al-Qusair, told The Daily Star via Skype.
He said the assault began at 10 p.m. Saturday, with government and Hezbollah forces in tanks and warplanes firing a barrage of shells into the city from their positions at the entrances to the city in the south and east. The Syrian government troops were reinforcing from the east along the Homs Highway, while Hezbollah forces were shelling from the south.
The barrage continued through the night and into the morning, he said. Some reported shells hitting at a rate of up to 50 a minute and amateur video filmed by opposition activists in nearby villages showed a thick cloud of black smoke hovering over the city’s skyline.
Activists said over 1,000 rebel fighters engaged in heavy battles to prevent forces from entering, but by midafternoon, Syrian state news sites and security sources close to Hezbollah told The Daily Star troops had entered the main square of the city.
“We struck from several fronts – south, east and northeast,” a soldier told state television from Qusair.
He spoke of violent fighting and said the army quickly seized the southern part of town, the town hall and nearby buildings, and advanced on the outskirts of the western sector of Qusair.
“The armed men fled toward the northern sector but we are also advancing on that area to eradicate all armed presence,” the soldier said.
He said that “100 armed men were killed” in the operation during which troops had to defuse mines and bombs placed by rebels at the gates of the city.
A Facebook page dedicated to the defense of the Shiite Sayda Zainab Shrine near Damascus, meanwhile, listed the names of 12 Hezbollah fighters they said were killed in fighting Sunday.
The activist, Mohammad al-Qusair, said earlier in the day clashes had erupted to the west of the city as rebel forces tried to prevent the removal of the bodies of dead Hezbollah fighters, adding that an ambush a day earlier near the Assi River had seen “many” of them killed and three tanks destroyed. A security source close to Hezbollah in Lebanon told The Daily Star the Syrian army now controls a number of north and northeastern positions and has cut the main road between Qusair and the villages of Arjoun and Dabaa, where rebel forces are positioned. The source said 60 percent of the city was now under army control, adding that rebels had suffered high casualties.
Meanwhile, six rockets hit the outskirts of Hermel in Lebanon, close to the border, Sunday afternoon causing damage but no injuries.
Hermel residents say the area has become a key transit route for Hezbollah forces deploying to Qusair, with forces positioned along main roads in the northern Bekka to secure fighters’ passage to the front line.
Residents told The Daily Star the thuds of artillery shelling and warplanes blanketed the city Sunday, while schools remained closed for the 10th consecutive day.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition released a statement saying a massacre was underway.
“Assad forces, with support from Hezbollah militias, as well as Iranian elements, are currently shelling the town of Qusair with various heavy weapons. They are leveling civilian homes with artillery and rocket fire, while the air force provides cover for the Hezbollah militias,” the statement said.
“These militias seem to be preparing to storm Qusair and there are clear indications that a civilian massacre will soon take place.”
Qusair, lying on a strategic gateway to Lebanon, has been in opposition hands since February 2012.
The ferocious battles for Qusair are part of a recent government offensive beginning in April that analysts say is aimed at retaking a key corridor stretching from the capital Damascus, to Homs, north to Aleppo, and the coastal enclave of Latakia – home to the majority of Assad’s own Alawite sect.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the battle for Qusair was a central component of a coordinated offensive with broader implications.
“If the army manages to take control of Qusair, the whole province of Homs will fall,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
The offensive in Homs itself Sunday saw two suicide bombs strike the town of Deir Balbaa, just outside the city, killing at least three and wounding 13, while another pair of bombs hit a factory on a Homs highway, leaving four dead, state media reported.
Regime forces and government-aligned militias reportedly executed 17 people Saturday in Al-Waer neighborhood and burned their remains, according to the opposition coalition. Residents said government forces also shelled the neighborhood, home to tens of thousands of internally displaced, saying they feared thousands of people could be trapped.
The bold military offensive in Qusair comes as the regime makes significant military gains, throwing into doubt the plan, hatched via a rare U.S.-Russian agreement, to hold a peace conference in June aimed at bringing the opposition and regime together for a politically negotiated settlement.
Talks ahead of the proposed conference have stalled over deep disagreements between the two main sponsors and their allies over what role, if any, Assad could play in a transitional government. The opposition fiercely opposes Assad playing any part and it is not sure whether any such government could extend control over the array of armed groups and militia now operating in Syria.
In an interview Saturday with an Argentinian news channel, Assad struck a defiant tone and appeared to scorn the conference.
“They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic,” he told the Argentine newspaper Clarin.
Assad declared there would be “No dialogue with terrorists,” but it was not clear from his remarks whether he would agree to send delegates to the conference that may falter even before it starts.
The Arab League, meanwhile, called an emergency meeting for Thursday while the coalition demanded that it meet and “stop the massacre.”
“The Syrian Coalition also asks the international community to take responsibility for protecting the lives of the 40,000 civilians in Qusair and also calls on the Security Council to denounce Hezbollah’s attack on Qusair and fulfill its U.N. mandate to protect civilian lives, “ the statement from the group said. – additional reporting by Rakan Fakih