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Syria army deals severe blow to rebels in key town

BAALBEK, Lebanon — Syrian troops and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies captured a strategic border town Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, dealing a severe blow to rebels and opening the door for President Bashar Assad's regime to seize back the country's central heartland.

The regime triumph in Qusair, which Assad's forces had bombarded for months without success, demonstrates the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria's civil war. The gain could also embolden Assad to push for all-out military victory rather than participate in peace talks being promoted by the United States and Russia.

The Shiite militant group lost dozens of fighters in the battle for Qusair, underlining its commitment in support of Assad's regime and edging the fight in Syria further into a regional sectarian conflict pitting the Middle East's Iranian-backed Shiite axis against Sunnis.

Most of the armed rebels in Syria are members of the country's Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad has retained core support among the country's minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiite Muslims.

Both sides had dug in for an all-out battle for Qusair, a key crossroads town of supply lines between Damascus and western and northern Syria that had been under rebel control since early last year.

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian army troops hold up national flags in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, Homs province, Syria, Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The Syrian army triumphantly announced Wednesday the capture of a strategic town near the Lebanese border, telling the nation it has “cleansed” the rebel-held Qusair of “terrorists” fighting President Bashar Assad’s troops. The capture of the town, which lies close to the Lebanese border, solidifies some of the regime’s recent gains on the ground that have shifted the balance of power in Assad’s favor in the Syrian civil war. (AP Photo/SANA) BEI103

Associated Press

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian army troops hold up national flags in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, Homs province, Syria, Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The Syrian army triumphantly announced Wednesday the capture of a strategic town near the Lebanese border, telling the nation it has “cleansed” the rebel-held Qusair of “terrorists” fighting President Bashar Assad’s troops. The capture of the town, which lies close to the Lebanese border, solidifies some of the regime’s recent gains on the ground that have shifted the balance of power in Assad’s favor in the Syrian civil war. (AP Photo/SANA) BEI103

Syria army deals severe blow to rebels in key town 06/05/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 11:02pm]

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