DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — 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.
It comes just a day after France and Britain made back-to-back announcements that the nerve gas sarin was used in Syria's conflict. A U.N. probe, also released Tuesday, said it had "reasonable grounds" to suspect small-scale use of toxic chemicals in at least four attacks in March and April in Syria.
The statements — which included a confirmed case of the Syrian regime using sarin — leave many questions unanswered, however, because the probes were mostly carried out from outside Syria from samples collected by doctors and journalists.
On the ground in the past two months, the Syrian army has moved steadily against rebels in key battleground areas, making advances near the border with Lebanon and considerably lowering the threat to Damascus, the seat of Assad's government. A wide offensive on Qusair was launched on May 19.
The fall of Qusair deals a huge blow to the opposition. The overwhelmingly Sunni town has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons, fighters and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to the rebels inside Syria.
The town is strategically located between Damascus, the seat of Assad's government, and the Alawite heartland near the Mediterranean coast.
In a rare military statement by the Syrian Armed Forces that was read out on Wednesday on state TV, the regime said it restored "peace and security" in Qusair, calling it a "clear message to all those who are participating in the aggression against Syria."
The army statement said the military cleared Qusair and surrounding villages in the country's west of "terrorists," the term the regime uses for rebels fighting to topple Assad's government.
It said a "large number (of rebels) have been killed, others surrendered and the rest escaped" following a decisive push into the town late Tuesday.
Syria is suspected of having one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenals, including mustard and nerve gas, including sarin. In recent weeks, the regime and those trying to topple Assad have traded accusations of chemical weapons' use but offered no solid proof.
In the West, the lack of certainty about such allegations is linked to a high stakes political debate over whether the U.S. should get more involved in the Syrian conflict, including by arming rebel fighters. More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced by the Syrian conflict since it erupted more than two years ago.
Images broadcast Wednesday in Syria by media embedded with the Syrian army in Qusair showed a deserted town, with heavily damaged buildings. Military bulldozers were removing rubble and clearing roads as armored vehicles whizzed by.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Qusair came under intense overnight shelling, forcing the rebel fighters, short of ammunition, to withdraw. The Observatory said it fears for the fate of over 1,000 wounded.
Earlier, doctors in Qusair had said wounded civilians and fighters in need of critical medical attention have been trapped in the town, and pleaded for safe passage to transport them.