BEIRUT: The Syrian army aided by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah made a huge push to retake the strategic city of Qusair from rebel forces Sunday, killing at least 32 people, opposition activists reported.
Fierce shelling began to slam into the city near the Lebanese border around 10 p.m. Saturday and continued unabated throughout the next day, an activist told The Daily Star.
"It is the biggest assualt yet, they [the regime] are using all their firepower,” the activist, using the pseudonym Mohammed Al-Qusair, said.
The city, which has been in opposition hands since February 2012, has been under siege by government troops since April. The area forms a key battleground as a route to the Lebanon border, and as part of a government offensive to retake a 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.
Analysts and fighters have speculated that the area could serve as an Alawite quasi-state if the government falls, compounding concerns of the country splintering along sectarian faultlines.
For rebels, the area provides a vital smuggling route for weapons and other supplies from Lebanon. This, coupled with Hezbollah soldiers fighting alongside Assad’s troops, have ramped up fears that Lebanon could be dragged further into Syria’s increasingly sectarian civil war.
A government official in the province’s capital Homs told The Associated Press that "the offensive to liberate Qusair has begun.”
The official said troops had broken through rebel lines and entered the city Sunday morning, taking over a municipality building.
However, Qusair activists denied the regime had made any headway past rebel fortifications, telling The Daily Star that troops had yet to enter the city from their main positions to the south and east. The activist said reinforcement had been supplied along the eastern highway from Homs.
The weekend’s violence has forced many from Qusair to flee across the border into Lebanon's Tripoli, Arsal and some border villages. Medical workers from Tripoli said Sunday hundreds of wounded from Qusair in have poured into city’s hospitals.
Homs province stretches from Syria’s Lebanon border by Qusair to its Iraqi one. The province has witnessed protracted violence since the beginning of the civil war, particularly in its capital of the same name. On Sunday two suicide bombs struck 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.
Inside the city, regime forces and government-aligned militias – known as Shabiha – reportedly executed 17 people Saturday in Al-Waar neighborhood and burnt their remains, according to the opposition Syrian Coalition.
The area also came under a government shelling bombardment late Saturday.
Al-Waer is home to tens of thousands of internally displaced from other besieged areas of Homs. Residents there said the main checkpoint at the exit of the neighborhood was closed, trapping potentially thousands of civilians as the area came under heavy shelling.
As violence raged, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a veiled warning that his government would strike inside Syria again to prevent advanced weaponry reaching Hezbollah – a long-term foe of Israel.
Netanyahu has not commented on reports Israeli struck an Iranian-supplied missile store in Damascus last month, fearing the arms could be transferred to Hezbollah and threaten the stability of its border with Lebanon.
In public remarks at his weekly Cabinet session, the Israeli premier said they were "preparing for every scenario" in the Syrian conflict.
Israel had set a policy "to prevent, as much as possible, the leakage of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and terror elements", he said.
"We will act to ensure the security interest of Israel's citizens in the future as well," Netanyahu added, describing his government's actions as "responsible, determined and level-headed". – with agencies