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Syria regime takes last rebel bastion in Qusair – Rebels, refugees cross into Lebanon

middle eastDAMASCUS: Forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad have now seized all of the Qusair area in central Syria, state television claimed yesterday, as wounded rebels and scores of refugee families straggled into Lebanon. The reports come a day after the United Nations launched a record humanitarian aid appeal for Syria, warning of a regional "explosion" if fighting does not stop. Yesterday's seizure of Eastern Bweida village, the last rebel bastion in the area, brought the entire Qusair region near the border with Lebanon back under regime control.

It came four days after the town of Qusair, which had been in insurgent hands for a year, fell to the army and forces from Lebanon's powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement. Hundreds of people who fled the fall of Qusair took refuge in Eastern Bweida, 14 km to the northeast, but Syrian state television broadcast footage of a desolate village devoid of signs of life. It was not immediately known where all the people had gone, but some have crossed the border into Lebanon.

Hezbollah also announced the news of Eastern Bweida's fall on its own television channel, Al-Manar. Its correspondent said: "Qusair's countryside is finished... The army has taken back the whole Qusair 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. The army and Hezbollah launched a vast offensive on Qusair nearly three weeks ago, in the clearest sign yet of the Lebanese group's commitment to the Assad regime. Scores of fighters were killed on both sides.

Qusair, only 10 km from Lebanon, is strategic for the regime because of its proximity to the 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. Dozens of Syrians and Lebanese from the rebel side wounded in the battle for Qusair have been evacuated to Arsal, a border town in northern Lebanon, and to Baalbek in the east, security officials said. Among them were Lebanese Sunni Muslims who had crossed into Syria to join the predominantly Sunni-led rebellion.

At the same time, scores of families fleeing the area have also braved a dangerous journey to safety in Arsal, a local official said. "Their situation is very bad. They arrived exhausted. They have nothing. Some came here on foot," local official Ahmad Al-Hojeiri said, adding that local authorities were short of funds and "only managing to provide basic assistance."

Meanwhile, Syrian helicopters fired rockets at an area near Arsal, whose residents back the rebels. The raid late on Friday was the second such strike against the Sunni-majority border areas in less than a week. More than 500,000 Syrians fleeing the conflict have sought refuge in Lebanon, which is being increasingly sucked in to the war. Elsewhere yesterday, a car bombing near an army post in nearby Homs city killed at least seven people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "It has so far been impossible to verify their identities," the Britain-based group said, adding that regime forces have begun bombarding areas north of the city.

Dubbed by anti-regime activists as the "capital of the revolution, Homs and its province have suffered massive destruction over the course of Syria's 26-month conflict. After Qusair fell, regime forces were expected to turn their sights on Homs, the countryside around Damascus and the northern province of Aleppo. The latest violence comes as the United Nations said a total of $3.8 billion was needed to help 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 said. 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 cracked down on pro-democracy protests, according to Observatory figures. 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, most of them displaced from their homes, are forecast to need aid this year. - AFP

 

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This article was published on 08/06/2013