Syrian forces capture final rebel stronghold in Qusair region

BEIRUT Sat Jun 8, 2013 2:59pm EDT

Soldiers loyal to the Syrian regime gesture while on their military vehicle in the village of Debaa near Qusair, after the Syrian army took control of the village from rebel fighters June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Rami Bleible

Soldiers loyal to the Syrian regime gesture while on their military vehicle in the village of Debaa near Qusair, after the Syrian army took control of the village from rebel fighters June 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rami Bleible

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government troops backed by Hezbollah guerrillas seized the western village of Buwayda on Saturday, ending rebel resistance around the town of Qusair in a fresh success for President Bashar al-Assad.

The swift fall of Buwayda came just three days after rebels were swept out of Qusair, denying them an important supply route into neighbouring Lebanon and giving renewed momentum to Assad's forces battling a two-year civil war.

Several opposition activists confirmed Buwayda was in government hands and said dozens of rebels, including a number of foreign fighters, had been captured alive. There was no immediate word of their fate.

"We can now declare Qusair and the surrounding area to be a fully liberated area. We will go after the terrorists wherever they are," an unnamed, senior Syrian army officer told state television from the rubble-filled streets of Buwayda.

Fighting flared elsewhere in Syria, including close to the capital Damascus and in the northern Aleppo province, which is expected to be the focus of renewed attack by Assad's forces following the collapse of the Qusair rebel front.

In Syria's third city Homs, an epicenter of the anti-government revolt, a suicide bomber detonated a car full of explosives in a pro-Assad neighborhood, killing seven people, Syrian television reported.

Three women were among the dead and at least 10 people were wounded, with the video showing pools of blood on the ground and at least one badly charred body.

The report could not be independently verified as the Syrian government restricts access to independent media.

The United Nations estimates at least 80,000 people have died in the conflict. U.N. humanitarian agencies launched a $5 billion appeal on Friday, the biggest in their history, to cope with the fallout from the fighting that has sent some 1.6 million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries.

"SACRIFICE"

Syrian state television broadcast live from the deserted streets of Buwayda, 13-km (eight miles) northeast of Qusair, showing destroyed buildings, debris-strewn roads and large numbers of boxes full of unused ammunition.

"We sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Syria," a group of soldiers chanted in the background.

Rebel groups from across Syria had sent hundreds of men into the Qusair area to try to stave off the assault by the Syrian army and well-trained Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, but they were rapidly overwhelmed, with opposition activists complaining of a lack of arms and poor coordination.

After the fall of Qusair, some of the rebels had retreated to Buwayda and dug in against the advancing government forces.

"We want weapons. We want ammunition and advanced weapons," the head of the rebel Free Syria Army, Selim Idris, told Al Arabiya television via Skype.

A Lebanese security source said at least 28 wounded fighters from Syria had been evacuated to hospitals in Western Bekaa and Rashaya.

Hezbollah's role has proved decisive, but it has also fueled sectarian tensions that have inflamed the region.

Hezbollah and its Iranian backers both follow the Shi'ite strand of Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims. Assad himself is from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Sunni Muslim preachers across the Middle East condemned Iran and its "Satanic" Shi'ite allies in sermons on Friday.

"Wake up. This is a war of religion," hardline cleric Imad al-Daya told worshippers in the Gaza Strip, whose Palestinian Hamas rulers were once close allies of Assad and Hezbollah.

(Writing Crispian Balmer; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Tom Pfeiffer)

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