Activists say 28 Hezbollah members killed in Syria
Beirut: Fierce street fighting in a Syrian town near the Lebanese border has killed at least 28 elite members of Lebanon`s militant Hezbollah group, activists said on Monday, as Syrian government forces pushed deeper into the strategic, opposition-held town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria`s civil war, said that more than 70 Hezbollah fighters have also been wounded in the fighting around the town of Qusair.
If confirmed, the casualties would be a significant blow to the Iranian-backed Shiite group, which has come under harsh criticism at home for its involvement in the war next door.
A staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime and is known to have sent fighters to aid government forces.
The Lebanese group`s growing role in the conflict also points to the deeply sectarian nature of the war in Syria, in which a rebellion driven by the country`s Sunni majority seeks to overthrow a regime dominated by the president`s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The increasingly overt Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian conflict is almost certain to threaten stability in Lebanon, which is sharply split along sectarian lines, and between supporters and opponents of Assad.
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 Qusair yesterday, including two commanders.
Qusair has been the target of a withering government offensive in recent weeks, and the countryside around the town has been engulfed in fighting as regime troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized villages while closing in on Qusair itself. The opposition estimates that some 40,000 civilians are currently in the town.
The intensity of the fighting reflects the importance that both sides attach to the area. In the regime`s calculations, Qusair lies along a strategic land corridor linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland.
For the rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Qusair has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to opposition fighters inside Syria.
Regime troops and Hezbollah fighters, who laid siege to Qusair weeks ago, launched an offensive to regain control of the town, with Hezbollah`s elite fighters advancing from the east and south, an opposition figure said.