Syrian President Bashar Assad's army and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of a strategic town near the border with Lebanon on Wednesday, dealing a significant blow to the rebels and raising alarm that it now could unleash reprisals against civilians.
Early in the day, the regime's troops and Hezbollah fighters invaded the town of Qusair from the south and quickly took it over.
More than 2,000 opposition Free Syrian Army fighters and 5,000 civilians fled to the northern and western parts of Qusair, where they are surrounded by Mr. Assad's advancing army, rebel sources in Syria said.
"The regime and Hezbollah control most of the town," said Samer, a rebel source who asked that only his first name be used out of concern for his safety.
In a statement read on Syrian state TV, the military declared it had "cleansed" Qusair of the rebels.
The rebels said they were no match for the regime's firepower.
"There is no hope to stop [Assad's forces] because they have unlimited weapons and resources, and they control the skies," said Sami Ibrahim, a Damascus-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Since the start of the battle for Qusair on May 18, 273 people have been killed and more than 2,400 wounded, he said.
Broadcast images of Qusair showed a scene of devastation: a deserted town with most of its buildings, including a mosque, reduced to rubble.
"When the regime says it is fighting for the civilians, it is ridiculous," Mr. Ibrahim said. "They are killing their own population."
Rebels attributed the regime's victory to an "invasion" by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces said the regime's forces, "aided by Iranian militias, were able to penetrate [Qusair] and seize new neighborhoods." Hezbollah is backed by Iran.
"The tremendous gap in the balance of power ended in causing heavy casualties within civilians," the coalition said.
The rebels and international humanitarian officials worry that the regime will unleash deadly reprisals against civilians.
Much of Qusair's population of 40,000 fled as Mr. Assad's forces closed in. Those trapped in rebel-held pockets are facing acute shortages of food and medical supplies.
The Assad regime has not allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide aid to Qusair residents.
"We have asked for access, but so far we are not there," Red Cross spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr said from Cairo. "There are security problems, which are our No. 1 challenge, so it might take time to get authorization."
The coalition said the international community must intervene and ensure humanitarian access to "protect civilians and put a stop to the Assad regime's systematic acts of retaliation."
Meanwhile, an international peace conference on Syria, scheduled to be held in Geneva this month, has been postponed until July.
More than 80,000 Syrians have been killed and several million displaced since the start of the conflict in March 2011.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.