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Syria regime takes last rebel bastion near Qusayr

June 08, 2013
A Syrian army soldier sits in his tank in the southwestern neighbourhood of the Syrian city of Qusayr. -  AFP Photo/File
A Syrian army soldier sits in his tank in the southwestern neighbourhood of the Syrian city of Qusayr. - AFP Photo/File

DAMASCUS: Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have now seized all of the Qusayr area in central Syria, state television reported on Saturday, as the United Nations launched a record aid appeal for refugees.

Saturday's seizure of Eastern Bweida village, the last rebel bastion in the area, brought the entire Qusayr region near the border with Lebanon back under regime control.

It came four days after Qusayr, a strategically key town for both the regime and the rebels which had been in insurgent hands for a year, fell to the army and forces from Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement.

“Our heroic troops have restored safety and security in Eastern Bweida” in the central Syrian province of Homs, the state broadcaster said.

Hundreds of people who fled Qusayr as it fell on Wednesday had taken refuge there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was concerned about the fate of hundreds of fighters and civilians, many of them wounded.

“Where are the hundreds of civilians and wounded people who fled Qusayr and took refuge in Eastern Bweida? We have no news,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said it was currently impossible to reach Observatory contacts in the area.

Syrian state television broadcast footage of a barren village devoid of signs of life. Its correspondent warned of the presence of explosive devices in the area.

Hezbollah also announced the news of Eastern Bweida's fall on its own television channel, Al-Manar.

Its correspondent said: “Qusayr's countryside is finished... The army has taken back the whole Qusayr region.

“The regime staged a war of nerves by bombarding (Eastern Bweida) all night long,” the reporter added.

“We have entered a new phase” in the conflict, he added.

The Syrian army and Hezbollah launched a vast offensive on Qusayr nearly three weeks ago, in the clearest sign yet of the Lebanese Shiite group's commitment to the Assad regime.

Scores of fighters on both sides were killed.

Qusayr is strategic for the regime because of its proximity to the Lebanese border and because it lies on a route linking Damascus to the coast.

For the rebels, it was an important conduit from Lebanon for men and materiel.

Despite Hezbollah's increasing role in the conflict, neither Syrian state television nor Al-Manar referred to the group's presence on the ground.

Elsewhere on Saturday, a car bombing near an army post in the nearby city of Homs killed at least seven people, according to initial reports cited by the Observatory.

“It has so far been impossible to verify their identities,” the group said, adding that regime forces have begun bombarding areas north of Homs city.

Dubbed by anti-regime activists as the “capital of the revolution”, Homs city and province have suffered massive damage through the course of Syria's 26-month conflict.

After Qusayr fell, regime forces had been expected to turn their sights on Homs and the northern city and province of Aleppo.

The latest violence comes hours after the United Nations launched a record aid appeal for Syria, warning of a regional “explosion” if the fighting does not stop.

The UN was also scrambling to find replacement troops for its peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights after clashes between Syrian forces and rebels on Thursday prompted Austria to announce it was pulling out.

The world body said a total of $3.8 billion was needed to help Syrian refugees who have spilled across the country's borders to escape the fighting.

The figure needed for operations inside Syria was put at another $1.4 billion.

“If the fighting doesn't stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is not prepared,” UN refugee agency head Antonio Guterres told reporters.

More than 94,000 people have been killed and some 1.6 million Syrians fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011 after Assad's troops cracked down on protests against his regime, the Observatory says.

The number of refugees is expected to reach at least 3.45 million by the end of this year, according to the UN appeal.

Inside the country, 6.8 million people are forecast to need aid this year, most them after being forced to flee their homes.

In neighbouring Lebanon, Syrian helicopters fired rockets at a Lebanese border area whose residents back the anti-Assad rebellion, raising new concerns of the conflict spilling over.

The late Friday raid was the second such Syrian strike against the Sunni-majority border areas in less than a week.