x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dozens of Hizbollah members killed in Syria, activists say

More than 70 Hizbollah fighters have been wounded in fighting around the strategic, opposition-held town of Qusayr, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

BEIRUT // Fierce street fighting in Qusayr has killed at least 28 members of Lebanon's militant Hizbollah group, activists said yesterday, as Syrian government forces pushed to retake the strategic, opposition-held town near the Lebanese border.

More than 70 Hizbollah fighters had been wounded in the fighting around the town, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

If confirmed, the casualties would be a significant blow to the Iran-backed Shiite group, which has come under harsh criticism at home for its involvement in the war next door.

The observatory, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria, cited "sources close to the militant group" for the death toll but declined to reveal their identity. It said at least 50 Syrian rebels were also killed in the battle for Qusayr on Sunday, including two commanders.

Lebanese security officials confirmed at least four funerals were being held yesterday morning for Hizbollah fighters or their supporters killed in Syria.

Regime troops and Hizbollah fighters, who laid siege to Qusayr weeks ago, on Sunday launched an offensive to regain control of the town, with Hizbollah's elite fighters advancing from the east and south, an opposition figure said.

By the end of Sunday, they had pushed out rebel units, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, from most of Qusayr, he said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by both sides.

He said fighting yesterday was focused in the northern part of the town.

The account matched that of Syria's state news media, which said troops had taken control of most of Qusayr yesterday. State-run TV said forces restored stability to the entire eastern front of the town, killing scores of "terrorists" there - the term used by the Syrian regime to refer to all rebels.

Army units "restored security and stability" to most of the city yesterday and killed "many terrorists," the majority of them foreign fighters who have been fighting alongside opposition forces, the state news agency said. The military also destroyed rebel hideouts and seized "large amounts of weapons and ammunition," it said, adding that government troops are fighting pockets of resistance in southern and northern districts of Qusayr Monday.

However a Qusayr-based opposition activist, Hadi Abdullah, denied official reports that the army was advancing in the town, saying they were still trying to storm it.

"They go in and out, until now I can say with confidence that they have not been able to enter the town and stay there," he said.

An official in the Homs governor's office said that more than 60 per cent of the city was in government hands after scores of gunmen were killed or surrendered on Sunday. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said more than 1,500 residents fled the city.

The opposition estimates that some 40,000 civilians are currently in the town.