Syria rebels plead for aid in strategic Qusair, Damascus
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 link 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.
Assad is widely believed to be making a push to cement his hold on the critical centers of Syria to strengthen his hand in a planned U.S.- and Russia-led peace conference.
Qusair, a small town sitting near critical supply lines for both Assad's allies and the rebels seeking to topple him, and the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus have been focal points for the army.
Local opposition councils on the outskirts of Damascus issued their own plea for support, saying suburbs around the capital that have been besieged for 7 months now face a heavy onslaught from Assad forces supported by Iraqi and Lebanese militias.
"Today these forces are massing...from the east and west and preparing to commit more massacres," the councils from the Ghouta region wrote in a statement distributed on Facebook.
"We call on all battalions and brigades to come help block this violent assault against more than 1.5 million people living in besieged eastern Ghouta," it said. Blame for losses in the area would be placed on Damascus-based rebels and the opposition's umbrella National Coalition abroad, it said.
Rebels have been trying to counter the army offensive but have suffered setbacks around their supply routes in Damascus and in the central province of Homs, where Qusair is located.
Rebels in Qusair sent out an appeal for support using social media outlets, saying the town near the Syrian-Lebanese border 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.
Fighters in Qusair said they were hearing at least 50 shells crashing every hour.
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.
YouTube videos published by several units suggest some brigades have arrived around the outskirts of Qusair, but not advanced further.
Ahmad Bakar, a doctor in a hospital near Qusair, posted an appeal on Facebook.
"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 and civilians."
Thousands of civilians are believed to have fled Qusair before the offensive began, after Assad's forces distributed leaflets by plane saying they would be attacking the town. But a small number remain in the town.
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 Sonya Hepinstall)
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