Louia Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Hezbollah leader says threat to Syria’s Assad is over

Statement comes the same day famed Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt is killed by an unidentified gunman

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no longer under threat of collapse, two of his influential allies said on Sunday and Monday, after a particularly bloody day across the country saw at least 60 people killed in Syria in ongoing battles between government forces and rebels.

"The danger of the Syrian regime's fall has ended," Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, which has sent militias to fight on Assad's side against mainly Sunni rebels, told daily newspaper As-Safir.

Hezbollah, an armed Shia group that is allied with the Assad regime, has been instrumental in helping Syria’s military dislodge the opposition from its strongholds along the Lebanese-Syrian border.

However, Hezbollah's public role in the deadly three-year conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims who support the Syrian rebels have carried out several attacks in Shia neighborhoods in Lebanon, claiming they were to retaliate for the help Hezbollah provides the Syrian government.

Despite the attacks, Nasrallah told As-Safir on Sunday that the threat of sectarian violence in Lebanon "has dropped considerably," crediting his group's efforts along the border.

His  comments were echoed on Monday by Sergei Stepashin, a former prime minister of Russia, which is Assad's most important backer. After meeting with Assad recently, Stepashin said the Syrian president was confident much of the fighting in the country's civil war would be over by the end of the year.

"To my question about how military issues are going, this is what Assad said: 'This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that, we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time — fighting terrorists,'" Stepashin told the Itar-Tass news agency.

Syria's conflict began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011, but it has since turned into a civil war that has drawn foreign fighters, including radical groups like Al-Qaeda, which have played increasingly prominent roles with the fighters, dampening the West's support for the opposition.

More than 150,000 people have been killed in the past three years, and millions have fled, activists say. The violence shows no signs of abating.

On Monday at least 29 Syrian rebels, including two field commanders, were killed when a vehicle exploded in the central city of Homs, a human rights monitoring group said.

Meanwhile, to the south, the capital, Damascus, saw heavy fighting as warplanes pounded an eastern suburb and a mortar struck the city's heavily defended center, killing two people and possibly damaging the Damascus Opera House.

The Opera House, officially called the Assad House for Culture and Arts, is located near a cluster of government and security buildings. It was the venue for a defiant speech Assad gave last year in which he vowed to continue fighting those seeking his overthrow.

Assad's forces are in firm control of the capital's center, but rebels have been able to launch mortar and rocket attacks into downtown districts, sometimes hitting heavily secured areas, including embassy grounds.

The explosion in Homs was at the al-Jaj market near a police base, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that the death toll was expected to rise. It was not immediately clear who carried out the blast.

The anti-Assad Observatory, which monitors violence on all sides through a network of sources in Syria, said at least five people, including three children, were also killed in the Damascus suburb of Douma during shelling by government forces.

Elsewhere, government helicopters dropped barrel bombs in the northern province of Aleppo, in Deraa in the south and Latakia in the west, the group said.

Death of Father Frans

In other developments on Monday, a gunman in Syria's central city of Homs shot and killed well-known Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt, the Observatory and the Jesuit order in the Netherlands confirmed.

Van der Lugt, who lived in Syria for nearly 50 years, gained renown for opting to remain in besieged Homs, where people were starving and were subject to daily shelling, rather than be evacuated along with 1,400 other residents during a United Nations–supervised operation in February.

"I can confirm that he's been killed," Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Jesuit order in the Netherlands, told Agence France-Presse. "A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head, in the street in front of this house."

No one has claimed responsibility for the killing. 

Stuyt said he was not aware of particular threats to van der Lugt, adding that the priest would be buried in Syria, "according to his wishes."

Van der Lugt stayed on in Homs' Old City, which remains under rebel control, out of solidarity with those forced to stay behind.

"The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties," he told AFP in February.

Wire services

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