Hezbollah suffers heavy losses fighting inside Syria

In this Saturday, May 18, 2013, citizen journalism image provided by Qusair Lens which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrians inspecting the rubble of damaged buildings due to government airstrikes, in Qusair, Homs province, Syria. AP Photo

BEIRUTIn what may be a first for the Syrian civil war, numerous reports claim Hezbollah suffered heavy losses aggressively fighting alongside the Assad regime's forces in a major battle outside of their home country of Lebanon.

It is no secret the Lebanese militant group -- labeled terrorists by many in the West -- has been a strong backer of President Bashar Assad, along with Iran. They have allegedly provided at least tacit support for some time in the two-year-old conflict. Now, however, it appears several, and as many as 30, have died as the result of active combat against Syrian rebels forces.

The fight is in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, and both sides consider the once-rebel-held town a key to controlling the conflict at large. One activist group said at least 23 elite Hezbollah fighters have died so far in the battle, while other put the number of those killed above 30 with 100 wounded, according to the Jerusalem Post.

So far, rebels appear to be losing their grip on the town. Syrian government forces pushed deeper into Qusair on Monday, battling rebels in fierce street fighting, state-media reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria's civil war, also said that more than 100 Hezbollah members also have been wounded in the fighting. If confirmed, the casualties would be a significant blow to the Shiite group, which has come under harsh criticism at home in Lebanon 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 previously 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 Observatory, which relies on a wide network of activists in 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 on Sunday, 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 as they closed 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.

He added that Hezbollah troops took control of the main square and the municipal building in the center of the town in a few hours. By the end of the day Sunday, they pushed out rebel units, including the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, from most of Qusair, he added Monday on condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation by both sides.

He said fighting was focused in the northern part of the town on Monday.

The account matched that of Syria's state news media, which said President Bashar Assad's troops took control of most of Qusair on Monday. State-run TV said forces restored stability to the entire eastern front of the town, killing scores of terrorists there.

An official in the Homs governor's office told the AP on Monday that more than 60 percent of the city is in government hands after scores of gunmen were killed or surrendered Sunday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to give information to the media during an ongoing military operation, more than 1,500 resident fled the city due to intensified fighting.

Qusair-based opposition activist Hadi Abdullah denied official reports that the army was advancing in the town, saying they were still trying to storm it.

"They go in and out, until now I can say with confidence that they have not been able to enter the town and stay there," Abdullah said.

Hezbollah members have made use of their expertise in guerrilla tactics to significantly boost regime forces in the fight for Qusair. Their presence, along with that of Hezbollah-backed Shiite fighters, is meant to shore up overstretched troops fighting on several other fronts.

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