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Syrian government forces seized control Wednesday of the strategically important border city of Qusayr, which had been the site of nearly seven weeks of fighting.
State-run TV credited an offensive “that led to the annihilation of a number of terrorists,” the government’s term for rebels.
“Our heroic armed forces are always determined to confront any aggression that our beloved homeland may face in the future,” an anchor on Syrian state television said.
The Syrian opposition acknowledged the report.
“Yes, dear brethren, this is a battle that we lost, but the war is not over yet,” said the Homs Revolution News, which is associated with the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist network.
One dissident group said Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran and the Syrian government, was instrumental in the siege’s success.
“Hezbollah fighters took control of Al-Qusayr city after the regime forces covered their night attack with heavy bombing … and continued into the morning,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Eleven of the regime’s security forces were killed and 25 others were injured in the Qusayr fighting overnight and on Wednesday, the Observatory group said. There were also reports of deaths among Hezbollah fighters Wednesday morning.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that more than 1,000 civilians in Qusayr were injured, almost 600 of them unable to walk. Many are trapped in narrow areas near the city, the network said.
The government’s capture of Qusayr came on the day that U.S., Russian and U.N. officials met in Switzerland to plan an international conference on the Syrian crisis. After Wednesday’s meeting, the United Nations’ special representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters that the conference wouldn’t happen in June as previously expected but could take place in July.
The loss of what had been a rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border represents a blow to rebels’ efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and may portend heightened sectarian tensions.
That echoes what rebels have been predicting for weeks: that a government takeover of Qusayr could lead to a new level of sectarian warfare between Sunnis – who dominate Syria’s population – and Shiites and Alawites. Al-Assad’s family, which has ruled Syria for 42 years, belongs to the Alawite sect.
“If Qusayr falls at the hands of the regime, there is no way to stop the acts of reprisal, and that retribution will (reach) another level,” rebel spokesman Col. Abdul Hamid Zakaria told the Al-Arabiya TV network last month.
“This will lead to Shiite and Alawite towns to be completely wiped out of the map.”
Indeed, video appeared Wednesday on YouTube showing what the poster said were Free Syrian Army fighters launching rockets at two Shiite villages, inhabited mostly by Assad loyalists, in an overwhelmingly Sunni region in the northeastern province of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, rockets fell on the mostly Alawite neighborhoods of Ekrema and Zahraa in the city of Homs, the Syrian Observatory group said.
Last week, Brig. Gen. Salim Idris of the rebel Free Syrian Army asked the public to “excuse (the) FSA” for any retaliation.