Syrian forces and their Hezbollah militant allies seized control on Wednesday of the border town of Qusair, dealing a strategic defeat to rebel fighters battling for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebels said they had pulled out of Qusair, which lies on a cross-border supply route with neighboring Lebanon, after two weeks of fierce battles which marked Lebanese Hezbollah's deepest military involvement yet in Syria's civil war.
One Hezbollah fighter told Reuters that they took the town in a rapid overnight offensive, allowing some fighters to flee. "We did a sudden surprise attack in the early hours and entered the town. They escaped," he said.
Qusair had been in rebel hands for over a year and television images from the town on Wednesday showed widespread destruction, with buildings reduced to rubble, the streets torn up and no residents in sight.
Assad's forces fought hard to seize it to reassert control of a corridor through the central province of Homs which links Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad's minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
"Whoever controls Qusair controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria," said Brigadier General Yahya Suleiman, speaking to Beirut-based Mayadeen television.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar television showed a man climbing the bullet-pocked clocktower in the town's central square to plant a Syrian flag, while tanks and troops moved through the streets.
"Our heroic armed forces have returned security and stability to all of the town of Qusair," a statement carried by Syrian state television said.
It marked the latest military gain for Assad, who has launched a series of counter-offensives against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels battling to overthrow him and end his minority Alawite family's four-decade grip on power.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in the fighting and another 1.6 million Syrians refugees have fled a conflict which has fueled sectarian tensions across the Middle East, spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon and divided world powers.
In the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut, residents fired celebratory fireworks as news of Qusair's capture spread.
The capture of Qusair strengthens Assad's hand ahead of planned peace talks which U.S. and Russian officials were due to discuss in Geneva on Wednesday, with the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
REBELS SAY FLEE AFTER ROCKET BARRAGE
The outgunned rebels said they had pulled out of Qusair "in face of this huge arsenal and of lack supplies and the blatant intervention of Hezbollah".
"Dozens of fighters stayed behind and ensured the withdrawal of their comrades along with the civilians," the rebels said in a statement.
Assad's forces had opened an escape route into Debaa and the Lebanese border town of Arsal to encourage fighters to leave Qusair, once home to some 30,000 people, a security source with ties to Syrian forces said.
The army had control of most of the town but was still sweeping the northern quarter where rebels had been dug in.
A rebel commander in contact with the brigades that pulled out said the decision to withdraw was taken after a day of rocket fire from the Syrian army and Hezbollah that "leveled what had remained" of Qusair. "An exit remained open from the north and the fighters took a decision to leave from there."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group which monitors the violence in Syria, said it was concerned for the fate of 1,200 wounded people in Qusair and called for immediate access to be granted to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
A fighter from the pro-Assad National Defense Force said that after the fall of Qusair the military focus may move to the northern province of Aleppo, which has been largely in rebel hands for the last year.
(Writing by Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon, Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Crispian Balmer)