BEIRUT — Fighting raged for a second day Monday in the strategic Syrian city of Qusayr as government forces, backed by Shi’ite fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, unleashed new airstrikes and rebels fought back fiercely in parts of the city, Syrian opposition activists said.
The toll of dead and wounded continued to rise for Hezbollah, which is fighting its biggest battle yet on the side of President Bashar Assad. Both sides have depicted the fighting in Qusayr as a turning point in the war that is raising regional tensions as Hezbollah plunges more deeply into the conflict.
Funerals for Hezbollah fighters were being planned in the group’s strongholds in the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon, relatives of the dead said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition watchdog group, reported that at least 28 Hezbollah guerrillas had died. If confirmed, that would be by far the largest toll for Hezbollah in a single Syrian battle.
After heavy fighting Sunday, in which regime forces appeared to be gaining ground, Syrian state media and pro-opposition sources gave widely divergent versions Monday of the battles that raged.
Jad, an activist from Qusayr who declined to be identified by his full name, reached through Skype, said that rebels killed 30 members of Hezbollah and regime forces Monday at dawn in an ambush when the government soldiers were trying to retrieve the bodies of the group’s commanders.
A video posted online, which could not be independently verified, showed an activist pointing to seven damaged vehicles apparently belonging to Hezbollah and listed the losses inflicted on the group.
In the video, fighters then seize the arm of a dead man and point out a tattoo of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of prophet Mohammed, a religious figure revered by Shi’ites. This, the fighters said, proved the body was that of a Hezbollah fighter.
Secretary of State John Kerry headed back to the Middle East Monday to press his case for peace talks between Syrian rebels and Assad’s regime amid increasing signs the new US strategy to halt the war is being undermined by Russia.
Kerry will first have discussions with the sultan of Oman. He then goes to Jordan to gather with 10 of America’s closest European and Arab partners to discuss how to advance a political transition and end more than two years of bloodshed in Syria, before traveling to Israel.
For the Syria negotiations to succeed, the Obama administration is banking on Russia’s help. The United States and Russia say they’re working together to start direct talks between Syria’s government and the opposition in Geneva next month. But while Washington demands Assad’s ouster, Russia continues to provide the Syrian leader with military aid and diplomatic cover.
On Monday, SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported that army units “restored stability and security to the full eastern area” of Qusayr, killing large numbers of “terrorists and destroying their hideouts.”
It published four photos of a battered vehicle it said was found in Qusayr and quoted a “media source” as claiming the vehicle belonged to Israeli forces and was used by “terrorists” in the city, proving “the scale of Israel’s military and intelligence involvement.”
Syrian government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters pushed into parts of Qusayr on Sunday, hammering the city with airstrikes and artillery, killing at least 52 people and wounding hundreds as civilians cowered, unable to flee, activists said.
By the end of the day on Sunday, about 60 percent of the city, which is in Homs Province, was under the army’s control for the first time in months, one activist said.