x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Hizbollah battles Syrian rebels in Lebanon as Assad rejects UN access

And along the border on the Syrian side, rebel fighters in Qusayr prepared to face a fresh assault by regime troops. Phil Sands reports

Syrian army tanks making their way to a military airfield north of Qusayr yesterday. AFP
Syrian army tanks making their way to a military airfield north of Qusayr yesterday. AFP

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // Lebanon was hit with its latest spillover from Syria's civil war yesterday as Hizbollah fighters clashed with rebels in its eastern border region.

At least 12 rebels were killed in the fighting east of the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, Lebanese security forces said, but added that the exact toll would not be clear until bodies were retrieved from the remote and rugged border area. At least one Hizbollah fighter also died.

Syria's two-year-old war has increasingly sucked in its smaller neighbour. There have been deadly battles in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, and rockets have hit the Bekaa Valley and southern Beirut.

Farther north from Baalbek, along the border on the Syrian side, rebel fighters in Qusayr prepared to face a fresh assault by regime troops after calls by the United Nations and the Red Cross for urgent humanitarian access were rejected by Syrian officials.

More than a dozen air strikes by regime jets were reported by opposition activists in Qusayr, while at least 6,000 troops loyal to the president, Bashar Al Assad, and backed by Hizbollah fighters, continued their two-week-long battle to retake the town.

"We have already requested access to Qusayr," said Robert Mardini, the head of operations in the Middle East for the International Committee for the Red Cross.

"We are prepared to enter the city immediately to deliver aid to the civilian population, provided we are able to operate in an impartial manner without preconditions of any kind."

The response from the Syrian regime, which typically takes days to make public statements on such issues, if at all, was swift.

"Syrian authorities will allow the Red Cross, in cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent, access to the area immediately after the end of military operations," Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, told the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, according to Syria's state news agency Sana.

Approximately 1,000 wounded people are trapped in Qusayr, according to activists and rights groups.

Many of them are non-combatants, opposition groups say, with thousands of civilians remaining in the town, unable to leave. Food, water and medical supplies are running low.

Recent evacuation efforts failed when a convoy of wounded was shot at by regime forces, activists said, killing at least nine people and forcing the wounded to turn back.

"Civilians and the wounded are at risk of paying an even heavier price as the fighting continues," said Mr Mardini. "We call upon all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and to take constant care to spare at all times the lives of civilians and of those no longer taking part in hostilities."

On Saturday, Britain drafted a UN security council resolution expressing alarm about the deteriorating situation in Qusayr, and urged both the regime and armed rebel factions to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.

It also called for the UN to be given immediate access to the combat zone to help evacuate civilians.

The draft was blocked by veto-wielding Russia before it was even voted upon.

Moscow has consistently protected the Syrian regime from censure within the security council.

Since the start of the uprising, the Syrian authorities have blocked access for independent humanitarian aid to key areas of conflict, starting with Deraa in 2011 when the uprising began.

Amir Abdullah, the deputy director of the UN World Food Programme, this week said it had not been given permission by the regime to access to all areas of Syria to distribute aid.

"We have had some difficulties with getting permits to go to every location that we have needed," he said. "However, more recently we have had assurances from the government of Syria to ensure that we are able to reach these locations.

"We recognise with the conflict that we can't always get that but we have to be able to try to reach people."

Aid agencies say rebel factions have in some cases also blocked or held up humanitarian efforts.

Qusayr has become a strategically and symbolically important battlefield for the regime and rebels.

Both sides have thrown reinforcements into the battle there, with opposition fighters from as far afield as the rebel-held eastern desert province of Deir Ezzor reported to be on the way yesterday.

It has also become a lightening rod for growing sectarian tensions in Syria and the wider Middle East because of the open involvement of Shiite militants from Hizbollah, a crucial ally to Mr Al Assad.

Also yesterday a car bomb exploded in Jobar, east of Damascus, killing eight security personnel, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.

Jobar is another key battleground, with regime troops and rebels just a few hundred metres apart on the edge of the Syrian capital.

The timetable for a diplomatic initiative to solve the Syria crisis also seems to be slipping.

Russia and the US, the main powers behind what is being called the Geneva 2 proposal, had hoped to hold negations between the regime and opposition in May.

Yesterday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, who described it as the "last chance conference" said he expected it would now happen no sooner than July.

 

psands@thenational.ae