Hizbullah Fighters Reported Killed in Clashes With Syrian Rebels

BEIRUT (Los Angeles Times/MCT) -

Several Hizbullah fighters were reported killed inside Syria this past weekend in the latest indication that combatants from the Lebanese-based group have battled Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The Beirut-based English language Daily Star reported that three Hizbullah fighters and 12 Syrian rebels were killed in fierce clashes just inside Syria, close to the Lebanese-Syrian border. The confrontations occurred near the Syrian town of Qusayr, the Star reported, quoting a Lebanese security source.

The border area has long been a battlefield between the Syrian military and anti-government insurgents. The region is an important smuggling corridor for weapons and rebel fighters heading from Lebanon to Syria’s neighboring Homs province.

Hizbullah did not comment on the latest reports of casualties in Syria.

Hizbullah has vehemently denied repeated allegations from the Syrian opposition that it has dispatched militiamen to fight alongside government forces in Syria. But Hizbullah has acknowledged that some party members may be acting on their own to protect border-area villages under attack from Syrian rebels.

Hizbullah periodically has announced the death of members killed while performing “jihad duties,” but it generally withholds details.

Hizbullah has been a staunch supporter of Assad during the almost two-year-long rebellion against his rule.

Allegations that Hizbullah has dispatched fighters to Syria underscore sectarian divisions in the Syrian conflict. Hizbullah is a Shiite Muslim group. Syrian rebels are mostly Sunni Muslims, the majority population in Syria.

Assad and much of his security leadership are members of the Alawite sect, regarded as an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Shiite-led government of Iran is a patron of Hizbullah and Assad’s Syria. Iran, like Hizbullah, has denied rebel charges that its forces are on the ground in Syria assisting Assad’s military.

Hizbullah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel, has both a paramilitary arm and a political structure and is a dominant force in Lebanese politics. Washington has designated Hizbullah a terrorist organization. Tehran lauds Hizbullah and Syria as charter members in the “axis of resistance” against Israel and the United States.