DAMASCUS: The Syrian army ousted rebels from the strategic town of Qusayr on Wednesday after a blistering 17-day assault led by Hezbollah fighters, scoring a major battlefield success in a war that has killed at least 94,000 people.
As the United States and Russia prepared for talks in Geneva on a joint peace initiative, the rebels conceded they lost Qusayr after controlling it for a year.
But the main opposition National Coalition shrugged off the defeat, declaring the “revolution will continue”.
The army said the “heroic victory” served as a warning that it would “crush” the 26-month uprising and bring “security and stability to every inch of our land”.
The battle for Qusayr, a conduit for fighters and weapons just 10 kilometres (six miles) from Lebanon and linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast, left the town in ruins.
Its capture opens the way for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to move on the central city of Homs, where rebels still control many neighbourhoods.
State television aired footage of tanks rolling through deserted streets strewn with dust and bricks from shattered buildings, as well as cases of rockets that fleeing rebels apparently abandoned in a hideout.
“We are in their den. Look at their rocket stockpiles,” an army officer told the channel.
Soldiers looked on, their Kalashnikovs lowered, as bulldozers cleared away debris in the main square, where Syria’s flag flew atop a badly damaged clock tower.
The army, in a statement carried by the official SANA news agency, appealed for civilians to return, saying it would “show mercy” to those who down their weapons.
“We declare the town of Qusayr a safe town,” said an army commander who stood in a battered street with his men, in an interview with Hezbollah television.
The insurgents admitted “this is a round that we have lost,” but added they would press on and “fight the thousands of Lebanese mercenaries”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army and fighters from Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement, had taken Qusayr after an “intense bombardment” overnight.
They fled with thousands of civilians, many of them wounded, to Eastern Bweida, the only village in the area still under opposition control, an activist said.
“We have nothing here, no medicine and barely any food… And now the bombing on Eastern Bweida is crazy. We cannot possibly take care of the displaced,” said Abu al-Moatasem.
“We need a humanitarian corridor just to get them out,” he told AFP. “Our revolution will continue. Even if all of us die here, revolutionaries in other provinces will continue fighting.”
Damascus ally Tehran congratulated the Syrian army and people for their victory over “the ‘takfiri’ terrorists,” using a term for Sunni hardliners who dominate the ranks of the rebels.
Iran is predominantly Shiite and a close ally of Assad, who belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, regarded as heretical by Sunni hardliners.
The regime’s Qusayr offensive was launched on May 19, spearheaded by Hezbollah. Rebels put up fierce resistance, and were later bolstered by hundreds of Sunni volunteers from Lebanon, stoking deadly sectarian tensions in the smaller neighbour.
Doctors had appealed for the Red Cross to be allowed in to treat the wounded, but Syria said this would be permitted only when the rebels had been defeated.
On the diplomatic front, officials from Russia, the US and the UN gathered in Geneva to work on a peace conference, amid allegations both Assad’s regime and the rebels may have used chemical weapons.
The officials hope to hammer out terms to get both camps to negotiate directly for the first time.
But a tentative date for the conference, initially planned for early June, has slipped back to July amid wrangling over the list of participants and agenda.
Pope Francis threw his weight behind the peace plan.
“These initiatives are to be encouraged, and it is hoped that they will lead to peace,” he said.
The Geneva meeting comes as Britain said physiological samples from Syria had tested positive for sarin gas and there was growing information the regime had used chemical weapons.
“The material from inside Syria tested positive for sarin,” a government spokesperson said in London, referring to the deadly nerve agent.
France said it will not intervene unilaterally in Syria, after it too said it had evidence of sarin use in Syria..
On Tuesday, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe both sides had used chemical weapons.
But Washington said it needed more evidence before concluding the use of sarin.
“We need to expand the evidence we have… before we make any decision,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
President Barack Obama has said any use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer.”.