BEIRUT — Several Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah 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.
Hezbollah did not comment on the latest reports of casualties in Syria.
Hezbollah has vehemently denied repeated allegations from the Syrian opposition that it has dispatched militiamen to fight alongside government forces in Syria. But Hezbollah has acknowledged that some party members may be acting on their own to protect border-area villages under attack from Syrian rebels.
Hezbollah periodically has announced the death of members killed while performing “jihad duties,” but it generally withholds details. The group is known for secrecy and tight discipline.
Hezbollah has been a staunch supporter of Assad during the almost two-year-long rebellion against his rule.
Allegations that Hezbollah has dispatched fighters to Syria underscore sectarian divisions in the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah and Assad’s Syria. Iran, like Hezbollah, has denied rebel charges that its forces are on the ground in Syria assisting Assad’s military.
Just last week, Iran announced that a general in its revolutionary guards corps, Hassan Shateri, was killed en route from Damascus to Beirut. Iran said the general was an engineer who worked on reconstruction efforts in south Lebanon, Hezbollah’s heartland.
Details of how the Iranian general was killed remained murky, but Iran blamed Israeli “agents.”
Hezbollah, 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 Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Tehran lauds Hezbollah and Syria as charter members in the “axis of resistance” against Israel and the United States.