BEIRUT — Troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have retaken parts of the strategic city of Al-Qusair in central Syria, destroying tunnels used by rebels and seizing weapons, the state-run SANA news agency said Monday.
Fighting continued to rage in some areas as troops engage "terrorist groups," the agency said.
More than 90 people have been killed in the last 48 hours of clashes over Al-Qusair, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. The dead include 56 rebel fighters and 23 members of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia, who have joined Assad's forces, it said.
The city is near to the highway linking Damascus to the coast and has been a conduit for weapons from Lebanon to the rebels. The government offensive began with attacks on villages on the city's outskirts last month.
Bassam al-Dada, a political adviser to the rebel Free Syrian Army, said from Istanbul that Assad's forces are still at the outskirts of the city. "Our people are still fighting inside and very strongly, but it's not an easy situation," he said. He said the government claims are meant to dissuade people from joining the fighting.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar Television showed exclusive footage from the city, with houses in rubble, mangled cars and plumes of smoke rising from some neighborhoods. Its correspondent on the outskirts reported heavy fighting Monday while a Syrian soldier told the station that the remaining rebels are surrounded in the northern districts.
Al-Manar also showed the funeral in the eastern Bekaa Valley of one of Hezbollah's "martyrs," his coffin wrapped in Hezbollah's yellow flag. Hezbollah has been a key ally of the Assad government since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 and its chief Hassan Nasrallah said this month that Syria will supply his group with more advanced weapons.
The main opposition movement, the National Syrian Coalition, warned in a statement yesterday that there may be a "civilian massacre" in Al-Qusair. It said Assad's troops have leveled homes with artillery and rocket fire, while the air force provided cover.
"The Syrian Coalition warns about the outcome of these distressing developments, which come as part of an organized and predetermined military campaign," said the statement, posted on the group's Facebook page.
The Arab League will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss Syria at the request of Qatar, Egypt's state-run Middle East News Agency reported. Talks will focus on Al-Qusair and the participation of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in battles, MENA cited an unidentified league official as saying.
Iran has said that while it has some military-related personnel in Syria its forces aren't taking part in battles.
Hadi al-Abdullah, an activist from Al-Qusair, told al- Arabiya television last night that 50 shells a minute were hitting the city. He said 40,000 residents were trapped inside.
The Syrian uprising began with peaceful protests that evolved into a civil war after the government began attacking the demonstrators. Radical Islamists, some with ties to al- Qaeda, have since joined the fight against Assad.
Islamic sharia courts have been set up in some rebel-held areas. One in Idlib Province sentenced Ahmad al-Rai to 50 lashes for allowing his daughter to remarry before the sharia- prescribed limit of three months had passed after her divorce, the Observatory said on its Facebook page. The groom, Mustafa Amno, was sentenced to 40 lashes, the group said.
A video posted by the Observatory, whose authenticity couldn't be independently verified by Bloomberg, showed the two men being lashed in a street after their sentences — commuted from death — were read.