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Assad, Hezbollah forces storm Syrian rebel town

Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah attacked and entered the strategic rebel stronghold of Qusayr on Sunday, a day after President Bashar al-Assad insisted he would not quit.

The advance came as opponents warned the Assad regime’s ‘barbaric and destructive’ assault on Qusayr could render ‘meaningless’ US-Russian attempts to organise a conference on ending two years of bloodshed in the country.

The Arab League called an emergency meeting for Thursday, ahead of the conference, following demands from the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) for it to meet and ‘stop the massacre in Qusayr’.

The Syrian regime’s assault on Qusayr - located on the key road between Damascus and the Lebanese border - followed heavy early morning bombardment of the town by its artillery and warplanes.

‘The assault on Qusayr has started. There is fierce fighting between rebels and the army around the entrances to the town,’ said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

‘Soldiers and tanks are trying to advance into the town, the rebel forces are attempting to push them back,’ he said.

Troops were entering from the south, and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a key ally of the Syrian regime, were ‘playing a central role,’ he added.

State television said the army had ‘tightened the noose on the terrorists, attacking on different fronts and destroying positions of their leaders in the south of the town’. At least 30 people, including 16 rebel fighters, were killed in the fighting, said the Observatory, a Britain-based group that relies on various sources on the ground.

‘A rain of shells fell on the city, at the same time as artillery fire and mortar fire from dawn. Homes were destroyed and burnt down,’ said the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an activist network.

‘The Syrian army controls Qusayr’s main square in the centre of the city, and the surrounding buildings, including the municipality building,’ a military source said. The regime has made recapturing Qusayr and the surrounding district of Homs province a key objective, and fierce fighting has raged in the vicinity for months.

In recent weeks, government troops backed by Hezbollah and members of the National Defence Forces, a pro-regime militia, have taken a string of villages and reportedly surrounded Qusayr on three sides. Last week, a military source said the army dropped leaflets on Qusayr, warning civilians to flee ahead of an operation.
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