(AP) Syrian troops capture town near Lebanon border
By ALBERT AJI and BASSEM MROUE
Syrian troops captured a western town near the border with Lebanon on Thursday, after days of heavy fighting that killed dozens including nine doctors and nurses and the nephew of a Hezbollah cabinet minister, anti-government activists and state media said.
The fighting is part of a fierce offensive north of the capital that has seen several rebel strongholds fall into government hands in recent weeks.
President Bashar Assad’s forces launched the push into the rugged Qalamoun region along the border in order to cut off rebel supply routes and stem the flow of fighters. The fighting has forced thousands of Syrians to flee to neighboring Lebanon.
Militants from Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group openly joined the war on the side of government forces in May, tipping the scales against the rebels fighting for Assad’s overthrow but losing dozens killed in action.
The Syrian Arab News Agency SANA said troops have fully seized control of Deir Attiyeh “after destroying all terrorist hideouts inside.” The government routinely refers to rebels trying to overthrow the government as terrorists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed troops are almost in full control of Deir Attiyeh, whose population is nearly a third Christian. An activist in the area who uses the name Amer al-Qalamouni said troops captured the town after members of the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militia withdrew.
The Observatory and al-Qalamouni said five doctors and four nurses were killed in the clashes over the past two days at Deir Attiyeh’s main hospital.
Syria’s Health Minister Saeed al-Nayef said “terrorists committed a massacre” by killing five doctors, five nurses and two ambulance’s drivers in Deir Attiyeh. Al-Nayef was quoted by SANA.
In Lebanon, an official close to Hezbollah said Ali Rida Haj Hassan was killed in Syria this week while fighting in the Qalamoun region. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the young man was the nephew of Minister of Agriculture Hussein Haj Hassan, a senior Hezbollah official.
Residents in Haj Hassan’s eastern village of Hawsh al-Nabi confirmed his death.
SANA said that the army killed many fighters in Deir Attiyeh including Saudis, and discovered underground tunnels. Saudi Arabia has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition.
The fighting has led to the closure of the highway that links Damascus with the central city of Homs, home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries. The road closure has led to a shortage in fuel supplies in the capital.
Fighting is now concentrated around the rebel-held town of Nabek, just south of Deir Attiyeh, according to al-Qalamouni and the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has a reporter embedded with Syrian troops in the area.
Mroue reported from Beirut.