Assad forces seize control of border town

Hezbollah fighters help defeat rebels in Qusair, as concerns grow over possible use of nerve gas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 4:49am

Syrian forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of the border town of Qusair yesterday, dealing a strategic defeat to rebel fighters battling for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The setback for the rebels came just a day after France and Britain made back-to-back announcements that the nerve gas sarin was used in Syria's conflict. A UN probe, also released on Tuesday, said it had "reasonable grounds" to suspect small-scale use of toxic chemicals in at least four attacks in March and April.

The statements - which included a confirmed case of the Syrian regime using sarin - leave many questions unanswered, however, because the probes were mostly carried out from outside Syria from samples collected by doctors and journalists.

Washington said it needed more evidence before concluding sarin had been used.

"We need to expand the evidence we have … before we make any decision," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The Syrian army has moved steadily against rebels in key battleground areas in the past two months, making advances near the border with Lebanon. Syrian troops launched a wide offensive on Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, on May 19.

Outgunned rebels said yesterday they had retreated from Qusair, which lies on a vital cross-border supply route with Lebanon, after two weeks of battles that marked the Shiite Hezbollah group's deepest involvement yet in Syria's civil war.

A Hezbollah fighter said the town had fallen in a rapid overnight offensive, allowing tanks and troops to roll into the rubble-strewn streets after dawn, with many buildings in the city centre reduced to mounds of twisted concrete.

"We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us … Their fate is surrender or death," said the Syrian armed forces command. "We will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land."

The rebels said they had pulled out "in face of this huge arsenal and a lack of supplies and the blatant intervention of Hezbollah … Dozens of fighters stayed behind and ensured the withdrawal of their comrades along with the civilians".

A member of a pro-Assad Syrian militia said the military focus might now move to the northern province of Aleppo, largely in rebel hands for the past year.

Assad's upturn in fortunes could further diminish hopes of concessions at a peace conference the United States and Russia are seeking to convene.

Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse