Syria civil war: Hezbollah takes fight to anti-Assad rebels as they storm rebel-held town of Qusair

Militia offensive kills dozens as regime attempts to secure control of coast road

Jerusalem

Hezbollah launched a major offensive in support of the Assad regime today, with fighters from the Lebanese militant group playing their most significant role yet in Syria’s two-year-old civil war.

Opposition activists claim Hezbollah fighters, who were supporting regular Syrian troops, stormed the rebel-held town of Qusair, only six miles from the Lebanese border. They fired multiple mortar rounds and launched rocket-propelled grenades in an attack that witnesses say killed at least 32 people.

An opposition activist, Hadi Abdallah, told the Reuters news agency that Syrian warplanes had bombed Qusair in the morning, while artillery shells were hitting the town at a rate of up to 50 a minute.

“The army is hitting Qusair with tanks and artillery from the north and east while Hezbollah is firing mortar rounds and multiple rocket launchers from the south and west,” he said. “Most of the dead are civilians killed by the shelling.” Qusair is a strategically important town because it allows those holding it to control the coastal road. Its proximity to the Lebanese border also allows the regular Syrian army to link directly with Hezbollah. Reports suggest the town has been besieged by Syrian troops for weeks.

Syrian television said the army was “leading an operation against terrorists in Qusair”, with troops reaching the town’s centre.

“Our heroic forces are advancing toward Qusair and are chasing the remnants of the terrorists and have hoisted the Syrian flag on the  municipality building,” the report said. “In the next few hours we will give you joyous news.” Reports suggested that as many as eight Hezbollah fighters had been killed in the operation.

The group’s ever greater role in supporting the Assad regime will be worrying news in Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu used a cabinet meeting to warn that Israel is prepared to launch further raids against Syria if it believes the desperate civil war on its northern border threatens to spill over. Israel and Hezbollah fought a six-week-long war in 2006.

Although not formally acknowledged by the Israeli government, the Jewish state launched at least three attacks on sites near Damascus two weeks ago. Mr Netanyahu’s administration has consistently said that it will act to prevent groups such as Hezbollah getting their hands on the advanced weapons known to be held by the Syrians and turning them on Israeli cities.

Speaking at the meeting of his senior ministers, the Israeli leader, said: “[The Middle East] is in one of its most sensitive periods in decades with the escalating upheaval in Syria at its centre. We are closely monitoring the developments and changes there and are prepared for any scenario. The government of Israel is working responsibly and with determination and sagacity, in order to ensure the supreme interest of the State of Israel ... [to] prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and to [other] terrorist elements.”

Mr Netanyahu’s comments came as Russia deployed 12 warships to the Mediterranean, in a move that has been interpreted as an aggressive act meant as a warning to Israel and Western countries against any further military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Russia maintains a naval base in Syria at Tartus and has provided weaponry to the Assad regime. The deployment of warships comes days after Russia said it would supply Syria with a number of Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, which have a range of 200 miles.

Assad insists he will not step down as President of Syria

Bashar al-Assad has dismissed the prospect of new peace talks in Syria leading to a lasting settlement and stated that he has no intention of stepping down.

“We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria”, the Syrian President told the Argentinian newspaper Clarin. “There cannot be a unilateral solution in Syria; two parties are needed at least,” he said.

Mr Assad also appeared to backtrack on suggestions that his government would be willing to talk to certain rebel groups, describing those that are fighting to secure his downfall as “ terrorists”.

In what will come as a blow to those who believe his departure is necessary for restoring order in Syria, Mr Assad said that he has no intention of stepping down – indeed, he said, he would run again for the presidency in elections scheduled for 2014.

Video: Devastation in the town of Yabroud, Syria and the aftermath in nearby Douma

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory