Rebels Lose Key Town To Syrian Forces
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In Syria, the battle for Qusair is over. The strategically important town has fallen back under government control. That was confirmed early today by Syrian state media and rebel sources.
For three weeks, Qusair has been the scene of fierce fighting, including not only Syrians, but also the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. NPR's Kelly McEvers tells us more from Beirut.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The town of Qusair fell overnight as Syrian army troops and Hezbollah fighters launched a surprise attack on the rebel forces and civilians who were trapped inside. The pro-Hezbollah Al-Manar TV channel was reporting from inside Qusair by morning.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
MCEVERS: The army is in full control of the town, says this Al-Manar correspondent, pointing to military vehicles and men in camouflage. The Syrian flag tops what's left of the battered buildings of Qusair. The flag has been modified to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's face.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
MCEVERS: The guns in the background are being fired in celebration. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the footage from Qusair is there appear to be no civilians left in the town. Up until yesterday, residents said there were thousands of people trapped in Qusair.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
MCEVERS: Activists say this video was taken in Qusair as injured people are loaded onto the back of pickup trucks. Most of them are men and boys with gauze-covered stumps where their arms and legs used to be. When rebel fighters retreated last night, they say they took the civilians with them, mainly headed toward two villages north of Qusair. We reached one activist by Skype who says he's with rebel fighters in one of those villages.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: He says he and hundreds, maybe thousands of civilians are holed up in basements, and government troops have the village surrounded. He says rebels are trying to defend the village, but there's not much hope they can hold on. Our fate is death, he says. Our priority now is just to get the women and children out.
A Red Cross spokesperson says it has teams and supplies ready to help people but is stuck in Syria's capital awaiting government approval to travel to Qusair.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA ZAYNAB")
MCEVERS: At this funeral yesterday for Hezbollah fighters who died in Qusair, the theme song was "Ya Zaynab," rallying fighters to defend the shrine of Zaynab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter and an important figure in Shiite Islam. Posters of the martyrs show Zaynab's shrine in the background.
But Zaynab's shrine is in Damascus, not in Qusair. Analysts say Hezbollah is using the defense of the shrine as a way to justify fighting against Sunnis in Syria. Today, in pro-Hezbollah Shiite neighborhoods here in Beirut, supporters passed out sweets, shot guns in celebration and pinned up banners announcing the fall of Qusair.
Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli used to be the leader of Hezbollah. He split with the group in the 1990s. He says that by stirring up sectarian hatred, Hezbollah is playing a dangerous game.
SHEIKH SUBHI AL-TUFAYLI: (Foreign language spoken).
MCEVERS: Ordinary people are not sectarian. They don't want to carry a weapon for religion, he says, so Hezbollah has to give them a reason to fight.
The big question now that Qusair has fallen is how far Hezbollah is willing to go to defend the regime of Syrian President Assad. Already, there are reports the militia is fighting in the suburbs of Damascus and possibly around the country's largest city, Aleppo, in the north.
Sheikh Tufayli says for nearly two years, Hezbollah did its best to stay out of Syria. The decision to enter the fight, he says, must have come from Syria and Hezbollah's main backer, Iran.
AL-TUFAYLI: (Foreign language spoken).
MCEVERS: Iran's move is political, not sectarian, Sheikh Tufayli says. They believe creating chaos in places like Iraq and Syria gives them better cards to play in negotiations over issues like their nuclear program. The Iranians believe it's in their best interest to start this fire, Tufayli says, but I'm afraid once it's started, they won't be able to put it out. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.