DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, regained control on Wednesday of the embattled strategic town of Qusair where fighting has raged with rebels for nearly three weeks, state TV and a local government official said.
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.
The state TV said the army "restored security and peace" after successfully dismantling "terrorist networks" operating in the town over the last few days. An official in the governor's office of Homs province confirmed the report.
"At 6.30 a.m., Qusair became secure," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media about an ongoing military operation.
Government troops, backed by Hezbollah, launched a wide offensive on the town on May 19.
Both sides in the conflict value Qusair, which lies along a land corridor linking two Assad strongholds, the capital of Damascus and an area along the Mediterranean coast that is the heartland of his minority Alawite sect.
For the rebels, who had been in control of the town shortly ever since after the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, holding Qusair meant protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
In the past week, rebels in Qusair called on fighters from all over Syria to come to their aid in the town, and foreign fighters were suspected to be playing a large role in the city's defense.
The Qusair battle has also laid bare Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian conflict. The Shiite militant group, which has been fighting alongside Assad's troops, initially tried to play down its involvement, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in Qusair and buried in large funerals in Lebanon.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, firmly linked his militant group's fate to the survival of the Syrian regime, raising the stakes not just in Syria, but also in Hezbollah's relations with rival groups in Lebanon.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters embedded with Syrian troops, was reporting live from Qusair on Wednesday, showing images of damaged buildings and a deserted town. The reporter said there was no sign of fighting.
The municipal building in the center of Qusair appeared to be pockmarked from fighting. A Syrian flag was raised above it, claiming government control of the town.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said some of the rebel fighters have surrendered.
El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.