Syrian opposition urges rebels to join key battle

Syrian opposition urges rebels to join key battle

Leaders call for fighters to 'rescue' strategic town near Lebanon border under assault by Assad troops for fourth straight day

A man checks his destroyed house, damaged by a Syrian forces airstrike in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, Homs province, Syria, Tuesday, May 21, 2013. (AP/Qusair Lens)
A man checks his destroyed house, damaged by a Syrian forces airstrike in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, Homs province, Syria, Tuesday, May 21, 2013. (AP/Qusair Lens)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s main opposition alliance on Wednesday urged fighters from around the country to reinforce a rebel-held town under attack by President Bashar Assad’s troops and their allies from the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group.

With its appeal, the Syrian National Coalition sought to bolster embattled rebel forces in Qusair who for a fourth straight day Wednesday came under fierce assault by government troops. The town, which is near the border with Lebanon, lies at the heart of a government offensive to secure a strategic strip of land running from the capital, Damascus, to the Mediterranean coast and Syria’s seaports.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah group has been fighting alongside Syrian regime forces in the town and surrounding areas in Homs province for weeks.

“Forces from outside Syria” aim to destroy Qusair and rebels should join the fight to “rescue” the town, George Sabra, the acting chief of the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement. He also urged Lebanese authorities to respect Syria’s sovereignty and prevent foreign gunmen from crossing the border to fight in the civil war.

The Coalition has no control over the mosaic of armed rebel groups fighting on the ground inside Syria, and it was unclear what impact, if any, Sabra’s appeal would have.

However, an amateur video released by the Aleppo Media Center showed what it said were dozens of members of the Tawheed Brigade in the northern city of Aleppo who were said to be heading to Qusair to help the rebels. The rebels were driving pickup trucks, cars and trucks, some of them mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

Opposition fighters in Qusair were holding out Wednesday, but appeared to be under increasing strain as government tanks and artillery pounded the town and warplanes bombed it from the sky.

A local government official from the Homs governor’s office told The Associated Press on Wednesday that about 80 percent of Qusair was in government hands. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to give information to the media during an ongoing military operation.

He added that Assad’s troops had discovered tunnels linking areas around the town, and that the fighting is now concentrated in the northwestern parts of Qusair where the “terrorists” — the phrase regime uses for opposition fighters — were still entrenched. The official’s account could not be independently verified because Damascus bans independent media access to much of the country.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, said Syrian government and Hezbollah units were bombarding Qusair with rockets on Wednesday. A group of rebels trying to reach Qusair from the nearby town of Ind Shamseen were ambushed by Syrian troops, who killed at least two of the rebels, he said.

A video released by activists on Tuesday showed destruction in several areas in the city as well as heavy damage to the minaret of Qusair’s grand mosque that was riddled with bullets and shells.

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

Hezbollah’s role in the fighting in Qusair has ratcheted up tensions in neighboring Lebanon, which has been on edge since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed.

In an hour-long standoff Wednesday, dozens of supporters of hardline Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmad al-Assir blocked the road leading to a cemetery in the southern city of Sidon to prevent the burial of a Hezbollah fighter who died recently in Qusair.

To avoid an escalation of the road blockade, Hezbollah and the family of the dead fighter, 21-year-old Saleh Sabbagh, decided to bury him in another cemetery in the city, a senior Lebanese security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media. Sabbagh, the son of a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, was initially to be buried in the city’s Sunni cemetery but ended up being interred in a Shiite burial place.

Most of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims back the Syria’s predominantly Sunni opposition, while Shiites support the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.

The Observatory said at least 31 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the struggle for Qusair since Sunday. The group, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria, said at least 83 rebels and nine Syrian soldiers were also killed, as well as six Lebanese fighting on the rebel side.

In the past days, Hezbollah has held several funerals in Lebanon for the fighters said to have died at Qusair.

Meanwhile, fighting raged Wednesday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Assad. Lebanese security officials said that at least 10 people, including two Lebanese soldiers, have been killed and more than 100 wounded since Sunday in Tripoli. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

In the Jordanian capital, Syria’s ambassador in Amman denounced a meeting of nations that back the Syrian opposition, calling the gathering part of a US-Israeli campaign to destroy his country.

Jordan is hosting the “Friends of Syria” conference, which will be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry along with officials from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

The meeting will prepare for UN-hosted international talks on Syria planned for next month.

In Germany, the weekly Der Spiegel reported that the German intelligence chief has revised his assessment of the Syrian civil war.

The chief, Gerhard Schindler, told a small group of politicians dealing with security issues in a secret briefing that Assad’s military is stronger than it has been in a long time, according to Der Spiegel. Additional successful offensives of the regime are possible anytime, he said.

The German intelligence agency BND believes this is a turning point. At the end of 2012, it appeared the regime was in its end phase.

He said the channels for restocking the regime’s weapons supplies are now open, and the supply of gas for tanks and aircraft is also working again. Schindler said Assad most likely won’t be able to defeat the rebels, but he can contain them and even win back some territory.

The BND predicts that in 2013, regime troops will be able to recapture additional territory. If the fighting continues as it has in recent weeks, the regime could recapture the entire south by the end of the year. In this case, the rebels would be left with only the north.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

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