Iranians are working alongside Hizbullah fighters to back Syrian troops battling to retake the rebel stronghold of Qusayr amid fears of a civilian massacre, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
"It is the most visible effort we have seen by Hizbullah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force, and we understand there are also Iranians up there," a senior State Department official told reporters.
His information was based on reports from commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army, but he was unable to give any estimates of how many Hizbullah fighters or Iranians were involved, and what exact role the Iranians were playing.
"I don't know that they are directly involved in the fighting, but I don't think the people that I'm talking to know that themselves," the official told reporters travelling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
"This is an important thing to note -- the direct implication of foreigners on Syrian soil for the regime," he cautioned on a conference call in Muscat.
Many opposition commanders had reported that forces from Hizbullah "are directly engaged in fighting literally on the streets. They say that their men... are directly fighting against Hizbullah commanders."
"Iran's role and Hizbullah's role have grown substantially over the last couple of months," he warned ahead of a Friends of Syria meeting to be held in Jordan on Wednesday.
Observers have alleged that Hizbullah fighters were leading the battle for Qusayr in Homs province, three days after the Syrian regime began an assault to regain control of the town.
The town is a key strategic prize as it sits on the main highway between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, and also controls rebel supply routes from the northern city of Tripoli.
"The world is watching this and we are watching this and we will know if they commit massacres.. and we will hold them accountable," the U.S. official warned the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian opposition had voiced concerns that "when regime forces do go into Qusayr, if they do capture it, that there will be retaliation against the civilian population," he added, stressing "there are still thousands of civilians in the city."
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