Syrian government forces took control of the city of Qusayr early Wednesday in a major setback for rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.
The government announced that its forces had retaken the city, which had been in rebel hands for the past year, after two weeks of fighting and were now moving through the neighborhoods they had captured disarming explosive devices that the rebels had left behind.
Rebels, confirming they had abandoned Qusayr, said they had left "dozens of fighters" behind to protect wounded civilians.
The final moments for the rebel presence in Qusayr, which once had a population of about 30,000, came after days in which rebels in other parts of Syria vowed to send reinforcements. But only a few were able to reach the city, which sits near the border with Lebanon, and they reportedly were as poorly equipped as the force they were sent to help.
News reports said that Syrian government forces and fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah allowed the rebels to withdraw to the nearby town of Dabaa.
There was no official word on rebel or government casualties. A rebel spokesman last week had said his forces had taken "heavy losses" in the fighting.
The strategic blow, however, might be severe. Qusayr was an important way station for rebels smuggling arms and people into Syria, and the Reuters news agency quoted a Syrian general describing the city as a linchpin in efforts to break the grip the rebels have held on much of central Syria since last summer.
"Whoever controls Qusayr, controls the center of the country and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria," Brigadier General Yalya Suleiman told Beirut-based Mayadeen television, Reuters reported.
The battle marked the first major intervention by Hezbollah in the fighting, and its participation was considered a key element in the rebel defeat. The Hezbollah presence also set off an outcry from the rebels’ primary backers, including the United States, which demanded last week that it withdraw its forces.
Last week, Hezbollah fighters returning from Qusayr said that the city had been largely cleared of rebels then and that they were laying siege to the few areas where rebels remained.
The rebel retreat came after a day in which the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the fighting, reported that government planes bombed rebel positions and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reported that the Syrian government had denied it entry into the city because fighting still raged
In addition to the city itself, rebel forces lost control of a number of nearby towns and villages in the government offensive, and their once strong grip on much of the countryside appears to have waned. The meager rebel reinforcements that reached Qusayr took more than a week to arrive, a sign that they could no longer move freely to the city, and at least one group of reinforcements was ambushed by the Syrian army as it tried to reach the city.
An anti-government activist in the city of Yabrud, south of Qusayr, said that some fighters also had traveled from Yabrud to Qusayr to the support the rebels. But the rebel reinforcements were small in number and no better equipped than the fighters they were going to aid.
“The groups who are coming have very little ammunition,” said Yazed al Hasan, a spokesman for the Farouq Brigades, one of the main rebel groups in Qusayr.
It was unclear how many civilians remained in Qusayr when the rebel forces withdrew. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, an umbrella group for the opposition against the government, repeatedly said in the final days of the battle that thousands of civilians were trapped by the fighting.
But most civilians had left the city, others said.