Syrian rebels plead for help as army bombards strategic Qusair

BEIRUT Thu May 30, 2013 6:21am EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels pleaded for military and medical aid in the embattled border town of Qusair on Thursday, saying they were unable to evacuate hundreds of wounded under an onslaught from government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

President Bashar al-Assad launched an offensive to capture Qusair two weeks ago in what many see as a bid to cement a hold on territory from the capital Damascus up to his Alawite community heartland on the Mediterranean coast.

"We have 700 people wounded in Qusair and 100 of them are being given oxygen. The town is surrounded and there's no way to bring in medical aid," said Malek Ammar, an opposition activist in the besieged town.

Rebels in Qusair sent out an appeal for support using social media outlets, saying the town near the Syrian-Lebanese border - straddling supply lines critical to both sides in Syria's civil war - could be devastated.

"If all rebel fronts do not move to stop this crime being led by Hezbollah and Assad's traitorous army of dogs..., we will soon be saying that there was once a city called Qusair," the statement said.

Syria's two-year old conflict began as a peaceful protest movement but evolved into an armed insurrection after a violent security crackdown on demonstrators. More than 80,000 people have been killed and the violence is now stoking political and sectarian tensions in neighboring countries.

Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah is believed to have committed hundreds of guerrilla fighters, many of them with battle experience from a 2006 war with Israel, to help its ally Assad secure Qusair.

BOMBARDMENT

Fighters in Qusair said they were hearing at least 50 shells crashing every hour. Hezbollah and Syrian government forces appeared to be advancing more quickly after seizing the nearby Dabaa air base on Wednesday.

The Qusair fighting has intensified already simmering sectarian tensions. The rebels are mostly from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority while minorities have largely backed Assad, himself from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Rebel units from different parts of Syria have said for days that they have sent fighters to support the opposition in Qusair, but rebels inside say none have made it into the town.

You Tube videos published by several units suggest some brigades have arrived around the outskirts of Qusair, a town of 30,000, but not advanced further.

Ahmad Bakar, a doctor in a hospital near Qusair, posted on appeal on Facebook for rebels to rush to help.

"We need immediate intervention from outside battalions. I swear to God no supplies have gotten through to us and we need a route to be opened to evacuate the wounded an civilians."

Thousands of civilians are believed to have fled Qusair before the offensive began - Assad's forces distributed leaflets by plane saying they would be attacking the town.

Some activists estimate Qusair's civilian population was at about 20,000 when the offensive began.

"What we need them to do is come to the outskirts of the city and attack the checkpoints so we can get routes in and out of the city. Most of Qusair is surrounded," said the activist Ammar, speaking by Skype from the town.

Among those who have come to try to help Qusair are fighters from radical Sunni Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al Qaeda.

Sunni rebel groups have threatened to commit sectarian revenge massacres in Shi'ite and Alawite towns both in Lebanon and Syria in retaliation for Hezbollah's participation in the Qusair attack. They see the battle-hardened Hezbollah's role as critical to Assad's battlefield strength.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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