Strategic city of Qusayr falls into hands of Assad forces
DAMASCUS - Syrian troops backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah on Sunday entered Qusayr, a strategic rebel stronghold linking Damascus to the coast, a day after President Bashar al-Assad insisted he would not quit.
The advance came as Assad's opponents warned his regime's "barbaric and destructive" assault on Qusayr could torpedo 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, as the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) demanded it meet and "stop the massacre in Qusayr".
Forces loyal to Assad launched Sunday's offensive by heavily bombarding Qusayr with artillery and warplanes early in the morning.
Hours later, a military source said that government forces entered the centre of the town, with troops raising the Syrian flag over the recaptured municipality building.
"The Syrian army controls Qusayr's main square in the centre of the city, and the surrounding buildings, including the municipality building," said the source.
State television said: "Our valiant troops have restored security and stability to the Qusayr municipality building and surrounding buildings and are continuing to hunt down terrorists in the town."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops began carrying out air strikes backed by artillery fire against the town early on Sunday, before the group operation started.
"The assault on Qusayr has started. There is fierce fighting between rebels and the army around the entrances to the town," Observator director Rami Abdel Rahman 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.
"If the army manages to take control of Qusayr, the whole province of Homs will fall," he said.
The group said the army carried out additional air strikes on Sunday afternoon, and that at least 40 people were killed throughout the day, including 21 rebel fighters.
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.
The fighting has spilled over into Lebanon, and on Sunday the country's National News Agency said eight rockets fired from Syria landed in Lebanese territory, without causing any damage or injuries.
Responding to news of the assault on the city, the SNC, a key component of the main opposition National Coalition, denounced the "barbaric and destructive bombing" of Qusayr.
It accused the regime of working with Hezbollah to "invade the town and wipe it and its residents off the map," and called for "an urgent meeting of the Arab League to stop the massacre in Qusayr".
"We say to the countries that are working for a political solution in Syria that allowing this invasion to go ahead in silence... will render any conference and any peace effort meaningless."
The United States and Russia are working to organise a peace conference next month, in a bid to find a political solution to the conflict.
Washington has backed the uprising against Assad, while Moscow is one of his staunchest allies.
But the embattled Syrian leader said in a weekend interview with an Argentine newspaper that he will not resign before the end of his mandate in 2014.
"To resign is to flee," he was quoted as saying by the Clarin newspaper when asked if he would consider stepping down.
The Syrian military was also advancing on other fronts, taking control of the rebel-held village of Halfaya in Hama province, the Observatory said.
State television reported the army "killed numerous terrorists from Al-Nusra Front in Halfaya" and destroyed weaponry.
In Damascus, a military source said troops were advancing in Barzeh district on the northern outskirts of the city.
The Observatory estimates at least 94,000 people have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising began in March 2011.