BEIRUT: Hundreds of Syrian rebels managed to enter Qusair Friday to try to rebuff a major regime offensive in the strategic town close to the Lebanese border, activists said.
The reinforcements were reportedly being sent as forces loyal to Bashar Assad said they were preparing to storm the fiercely contested town from the north.
Syrian sources on the ground told The Daily Star Friday hundreds of fighters affiliated with the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade, an Islamist rebel group from the northern city of Aleppo, have been redeployed to help defend the town.
The opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added that the fighters had entered Qusair, which has been at the center of a major two-week government offensive to regain a key bloc of territory from the Alawite enclaves on the coast to Damascus, the capital. Qusair acts as a corridor linking these areas. The Tawhid brigade confirmed reports of its involvement on its Facebook page.
"Around 1,000 fighters from across Syria" have reached the town to try and repel the army’s assault, the opposition National Coalition's interim leader George Sabra told reporters in Istanbul.
Fighters coming to support Qusair's embattled rebel forces had been bogged down for days on the outskirts of the town, once home to about 30,000 people.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Observatory, said the rebels had broken through army lines near the village of Shamsinn, northeast of Qusair. However, it was unclear whether or not the fresh influx of Tawhid fighters was enough to help the opposition regain some lost ground, he added.
"It is too soon to tell if they can make a difference. We will have to watch today and see if they can help the fighters create a turning point," he told Reuters by telephone.
Assad’s forces, aided by Hezbollah fighters, captured the Dabaa airbase seven kilometers to the north of Qusair Wednesday and the northern village of Arjoun, bolstering their control of main highways to the town.
From these strategic points, the military is planning to storm the town Friday to take control of Al-Jawadiyah neighborhood, an army commander told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV Thursday.
Rebels in the town have faced a tight blockage that had prevented fighters or supplies from entering and the wounded from leaving. Reports emerged Friday that government troops attacked a convoy injured trying to evacuate the town, killing at least nine, according to activists.
Qusair-based activist Hadi Abdullah told AP that he was with the convoy evacuating scores of wounded people when troops started firing shells and machine guns, wounding about 80 people. "Women and children jumped out of the cars and started running in fear," Abdullah said.
He said that there are around 800 wounded people in rebel-held areas in Qusair. Abdullah said the main makeshift hospital in the town was hit, and a home was turned into a clinic. The Observatory added that “tens of people” had been wounded in the attack.
As violence raged in Qusair, Russia said that it would provide further military support to Damascus, its key ally in the Middle East.
A Russian arms manufacturer said Friday it is signing a contract to deliver at least 10 fighter jets to Syria, a move likely to help Assad’s army pound rebel strongholds across the country.
Sergei Korotkov, general director of the MiG company that makes the jets, told Russian news agencies that a Syrian delegation was in Moscow to discuss terms and deadlines of a new contract supplying MiG-29 M/M2 fighters.
Korotkov did not say how many MiGs Syria were buying, but said it would be "more than 10." It was not clear when they would be delivered.
Moscow has shipped billions of dollars' worth of missiles, combat jets, tanks, artillery and other military gear to Syria over more than four decades. Syria also hosts the only naval base Moscow has outside the former Soviet Union.
Advanced Russian land-to-air missiles, which would make a possible no-fly zone over Syria more dangerous, are set to arrive in the country in several months, a Russian arms industry source said. "Regarding the deliveries of the S-300, they can begin no earlier than the autumn," the arms industry source told Interfax on Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Russia has said that such anti-aircraft missiles are designed to deter foreign military intervention.
The S-300 contracts have also alarmed Israeli officials.
The system can track targets up to 300 km away and can hit at a range of up to 200 km, sparking Israeli fears that Assad's reach could extend well into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.
The anti-aircraft missiles would also undermine Israel’s relative free rein to fly over Syria and Lebanon.
Without naming Israel specifically, Interfax paraphrased the source as saying: "Air attacks on Syria from the side of a neighboring government or the introduction of a so-called no-fly zone above Syria may serve as a pretext for speeding up the deliveries of the S-300."
Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months that are believed to have destroyed weapon shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. – with agencies