BEIRUT: Regime troops backed by fighters from Hezbollah made progress in their quest to retake the rebel-held town of Qusair Monday as further reports surfaced of chemical weapons attacks by President Bashar Assad’s forces on rebel areas.
The fighting around the town of Qusair has taken a heavy toll on both the rebel and government forces, including the regime’s Hezbollah allies. An activist group said the Lebanese group has lost nearly 80 fighters this month, most of them in Qusair.
Gunmen killed a prominent female war reporter for state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV, Yara Abbas, Syria’s Information Ministry said during the battle for the town Monday.
The attack also wounded two other of the station’s employees, a cameraman and his assistant, according to state TV.
Dozens of journalists have been killed, wounded or kidnapped since Syria’s crisis began in March 2011. Over that time, more than 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Syria’s state-run Al-Thawra daily reported last week that nine journalists and 23 other crew members working for state-run media have been killed in the country over the past two years.
The ministry said in a statement carried by state TV that the car carrying Abbas and her crew was ambushed near Dabaa military air base, which has been fiercely fought over in the past few days.
Dabaa air base is located near Qusair, which has been under attack by government forces and Hezbollah fighters since last week.
Each side gave conflicting accounts of the fighting in the area Monday.
The opposition-aligned Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported violence raging in Qusair and Dabaa early Monday. It said troops and Hezbollah fighters captured the nearby town of Hamidieh, tightening the siege on Qusair.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said troops were now trying to capture the village of Haret alTurkumen in order to put Qusair under “complete siege.”
State TV said troops captured more parts of the northern and central rebel-held neighborhoods of Qusair that had been mostly under rebel control shortly after the crisis began.
The Homs branch of the National Defense Forces, formed of pro-Assad militiamen, said on its Facebook page that government forces had now divided Qusair into four sectors and had made major gains in all but the one that includes the town center.
“All of the mercenaries’ supply routes were cut off completely,” it said, referring to the rebels.
Islamist rebel groups, including the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, said they had sent reinforcements to Qusair. But one opposition activist said these fighters were stuck on the outskirts and had yet to link up with the town’s defenders:
“So far they are just fighting and dying, their assault hasn’t resulted in much yet, unfortunately.”
Rebels posted a video of fighters in what they said was central Qusair.
“We will keep fighting to the last man here who can say ‘there is no God but God,’” one insurgent said.
Syrian TV also said troops ambushed a group of gunmen shortly after they crossed from Lebanon on their way to Qusair. It said the infiltrators suffered casualties.
Al-Mayadeen TV, which has several reporters embedded with Syrian troops, aired footage from the town showing wide-scale destruction. At least three bodies could be seen on one of the streets.
For Assad, Qusair is a crucial link between Damascus and loyalist strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. Recapturing the town, in central Homs province, could also sever connections between rebel-held areas in the north and south of Syria. For the rebels, holding Qusair means protecting a supply line to Lebanon, 10 kilometers away.
The Observatory said that Hezbollah had lost 79 members in Syria in 10 days of fighting, all of them but four of them in the Qusair area.
Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Qusair has raised fears of renewed civil war in neighboring Lebanon, where two rockets hit the movement’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs on Sunday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced “deep concern” overnight at Hezbollah’s admitted combat role and the risk that the Syrian conflict will spill into Lebanon and other neighboring states.
Ban urged all concerned “immediately to cease supporting the violence inside Syria and instead to use their influence to promote a political solution to Syria’s tragedy.”
Government offensives in Qusair and Damascus in recent weeks are widely seen as a campaign to strengthen Assad’s negotiating position before a proposed international peace conference sponsored by the United States and Russia and planned for next month.
But the diplomacy so far appears only to have intensified the violence, especially around hotspots Qusair and Damascus.
The Syrian military pounded eastern suburbs of Damascus with airstrikes and artillery and loud explosions echoed around Al-Nabak, 80 km north of the capital Monday, where fighting has cut the highway running north to the central city of Homs, the Observatory said.
In Harasta, an eastern Damascus suburb largely under rebel control, dozens of people were suffering the effects of an apparent overnight chemical attack, according to opposition sources. Video showed victims lying on the floor of a large room, breathing from oxygen masks.
The sides in the conflict, now in its third year, have accused each other of using chemical weapons.
France’s Le Monde newspaper published first-hand accounts Monday of apparent chemical attacks by Assad’s forces in April.
Reporter Jean-Philippe Remy and photographer Laurent Van der Stockt reported that on April 13 they saw fighters “suffocating and vomiting” in the area after an apparent attack using chemical weapons.
The newspaper said der Stockt had suffered blurred vision and breathing problems for four days after an attack on April 13 on the Jobar front, in central Damascus.
Another video from Harasta overnight showed at least two fighters being put into a van, their eyes watering and struggling to breathe while medics put tubes into their throats.
It was not possible to verify the videos independently.
Syria, which is not a member of the anti-chemical weapons convention, is believed to have one of the world’s last remaining stockpiles of undeclared chemical arms.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Brussels that there was “increasingly strong evidence of localized use of chemical weapons” in Syria and said Paris would consult its partners on what action ought to be taken.
Speaking to journalists after talks with his EU counterparts, Fabius said that “very detailed verification” was necessary however.
“We are consulting with our partners to examine what concrete consequences to draw,” added Fabius.
In Aleppo, the Observatory said that three days of clashes between rebels and Kurdish gunmen in Aleppo province has left three Kurds and 16 opposition fighters dead.