DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops advanced toward the center of the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon and chased rebels from another key district on the edge of Damascus on Tuesday, officials said, solidifying gains that have shifted the balance of power in the regime’s favor in recent weeks.
In the past two months, the Syrian army has moved steadily against rebels in key battleground areas, making advances near the border with Lebanon and considerably lowering the threat to Damascus, the seat of President Bashar Assad’s government.
The Syrian army, which is backed by Hezbollah fighters, is “approaching victory” in Qusair, almost three weeks after launching an offensive to recapture the western town, an official in the governor’s office of Homs province said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media about an ongoing military operation.
He said the troops are advancing from the east and south of Qusair, fighting pockets of resistance along the way. The rebels still have control of the western and northern parts of the town as well as some areas in the center.
Later Tuesday, Syrian state-run TV said troops were now in “full control” of the southwestern part of the town and have “eradicated the remnants of terrorists there,” using the term used by Syrian officials to refer to rebels seeking to topple Assad.
A doctor coordinating medical treatment in Qusair said troops have been pounding western parts of the town with artillery as they move toward the center. The doctor, Kasem Alzein spoke to The Associated Press via Skype from Qusair on Tuesday, saying that regime forces are approaching the area where he’s been operating a makeshift hospital.
“It’s very difficult here,” Alzein said against a backdrop of constant shelling. “The battles are really close to where we work.”
He said he can’t venture out of his makeshift clinic that has been set up in one of the houses in the town after the main hospital in Qusair was destroyed in earlier fighting. He said the rebels are resisting, but cannot match the government’s Hezbollah-backed firepower.
“The rebels are not able to cover all the areas. The regime provides air cover and artillery shelling and the Hezbollah fighters are clashing (with the rebels on the ground) and advancing,” Alzein said, adding that the makeshift clinics he oversees around the town have received 42 wounded and the bodies of five people killed in Tuesday’s fighting.
“They are waiting for their turn to be operated on. I am not sure they will survive,” Alzein said of the wounded.
Doctors in Qusair are treating the wounded in about 50 abandoned homes that have been turned into makeshift hospitals since the government launched an offensive on May 19. Four of the homes have been converted into operating theaters. The doctors had stocked up on medical supplies, but they are running out of antibiotics, bandages and anesthetics. Oxygen supplies are already exhausted, Alzein said.
Appeals by the United Nations and other aid organizations to allow humanitarian workers to enter Qusair have gone unheeded by authorities in Damascus as fighting drags on and neither side has been able to deliver a decisive blow. Syrian regime troops and fighters from Hezbollah have steadily gained ground, but rebels have been able to defend some positions and appear to be dug in the north and west of the town.
On Sunday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to express concern over the situation in Qusair, according to Syria’s state-run news agency SANA. However, al-Moallem told Ban that the Red Cross and other aid agencies will only be able to enter Qusair “after the end of military operations there,” SANA said.
Both sides in the Syrian civil war value Qusair. The Syrian government is fighting there because it wants to reassert its control over the town that is strategically located between Damascus and the Alawite heartland near the Mediterranean.
Opposition forces want to hold on to the overwhelmingly Sunni town that has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons, fighters and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to the rebels inside Syria. Rebels in Qusair have called on fighters from all over Syria to come to their aid in the town.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces pushed rebels fighters out of Jobar, a key district on the edge of Damascus, according to the state news agency. If confirmed, it would bolster the defenses of the Syrian capital and further shift the balance of power Assad’s way in the civil war.
SANA said Tuesday that government troops “restored security and stability to some vital areas” in Jobar, on the northeastern edge of the capital from where the rebels had been trying to push into Damascus for weeks.
In Damascus, a Syrian government official said four mortar shells landed near the Russian Embassy in the Mazrra neighborhood, killing one person and wounding an unknown number of others. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Residents in the area said the shells landed about 150 meters (feet) from the building that houses the Russian mission.
Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency said four civilians and four policemen, two of them guarding the embassy, were wounded, adding that none of the Russian embassy staff was injured.
Russia is a close ally of Assad’s regime, which has been fighting an uprising that began as peaceful protests in March 2011, then morphed into a civil war.
Also Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said that at least 147 people whose bodies were found in a river in the city of Aleppo in January were probably killed, execution-style, in government-controlled areas.
“The bodies floating down Aleppo’s river tell a grisly tale,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to see how 147 people could have been executed and their bodies flung in the river in government-controlled territory, as the evidence indicates, without the knowledge of government forces operating in the area.”
The New York-based organization said it visited the site where the bodies were discovered and based its findings on interviews with locals and relatives of the victims, a forensic expert who examined the bodies, and photographs and videos of the victims. It said many of the victims bore signs of having been detained and then executed, such as hands tied behind their back, gunshot wounds to their head, and tape across their mouth.
At the time the bodies washed up in January, the government and rebels blamed each other for the mass killing. The bodies, almost all of men in their 20s and 30s, were discovered in the contested neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr. A government official at the time told AP that the dead were residents of Bustan al-Qasr who were kidnapped and later killed.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.