UN human rights chief alarmed over troop buildup around Syrian town
Spanish UN peacekeepers travel in an armored personnel carrier patrol at the Lebanese-Israeli border near the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, May 8, 2013. (AP / Lutfallah Daher)
Published Friday, May 10, 2013 11:35AM EDT
BEIRUT -- The top UN human rights official expressed concern Friday that a Syrian troop buildup around a besieged, rebel-held town in western Syria could lead to more atrocities if the area is overrun.
Qusair is strategically important to the regime because it links the capital, Damascus, with the coastal region, where regime loyalists are concentrated. This includes Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family also belongs.
The rebellion against President Bashar Assad is largely driven by Syria's majority Sunni Muslims.
Last week, regime forces were blamed for killing dozens of civilians in two other communities in western Syria, which is also near the border with Lebanon.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement that her team has reported a major troop buildup around Qusair, which is just 10 kilometres from the Lebanese border.
Qusair has been surrounded by Syrian troops for several weeks and has been shelled by their backers from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
"It appears likely that this is in preparation for a large-scale attack to uproot the armed opposition from Qusair and local people clearly fear a possible repeat of last week's killings of civilians," she said in a statement.
Rebels have lost ground in the area since the government launched an offensive there last month, backed by Hezbollah.
Bassan al-Dada, an official in the rebels' Free Syrian Army, confirmed Friday that more pro-regime forces have been streaming to the area of Qusair, a town of more than 20,000 people south of the city of Homs.
Hezbollah fighters have been shelling the town, hitting the main water tank and filtration station, and rebel fighters have responded, al-Dada said by phone from Turkey. On Thursday, several rockets overshot their targets and hit Lebanon, causing no casualties.
He said the siege is tight and roads in and out of the city are not safe.
In other developments, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleged that the Assad regime has fired about 200 missiles tipped with chemical weapons but did not provide detailed proof.
Erdogan said in an interview with the U.S. TV network NBC that his claim is based on remains of missiles, photographs, intelligence reports and medical reports of victims of such alleged attacks being treated in Turkey.
President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a "red line" for the U.S. and would have serious consequences. There have been repeated allegations that the regime has used chemical weapons, but the administration says it is still investigating.
Erdogan said the regime crossed Obama's red line "a long time ago," adding that Turkey wants the U.S. "to assume more responsibility and take further steps."
Turkey is a major ally of the Syrian opposition.