Syrian opposition urges rebels to join key battle
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's main opposition alliance on Wednesday urged fighters to come from around the country to reinforce a rebel-held town under attack by President Bashar Assad's troops and their allies from the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group.
The appeal came as Syrian government forces battled for the fourth straight day trying to wrest control of the western town of Qusair from the rebels. The town lies along a strategic land corridor linking the capital, Damascus, with the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah group has been fighting alongside Syrian regime forces in the town and surrounding areas for weeks.
"Forces from outside Syria" aim to destroy Qusair and rebels should join the fight to "rescue" the town, George Sabra, the acting chief of the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement.
Sabra also urged Lebanese authorities to respect Syria's sovereignty by preventing foreign gunmen from crossing the border to fight in the civil war.
A local government official from the Homs governor's office told The Associated Press on Wednesday that about 80 percent of the town was in government hands. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to give information to the media during an ongoing military operation.
He added that Assad's troops had discovered tunnels linking areas around the town, adding that the fighting is now concentrated in the northwestern parts of Qusair where the "terrorists" - the phrase regime uses for opposition fighters - were still entrenched. The official's account could not be independently verified because Damascus bans independent media access to much of the country.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Syrian government and Hezbollah units were bombarding Qusair with rocket launchers on Wednesday. Abdul-Rahman said a group of rebels trying to reach Qusair from the nearby town of Ind Shamseen were ambushed by Syrian troops who killed at least two of the rebels.
In Lebanon, dozens of supporters of hardline Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmad al-Assir on Wednesday blocked the road leading to a cemetery in the southern city of Sidon to prevent the burial of a Hezbollah fighter who died recently in Qusair.
The standoff, which lasted over an hour, was the latest sign of rising tensions in Lebanon because of the growing involvement by disparate Lebanese groups on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war. The conflict in Syria has killed more than 70,000 people, according to United Nations, and has often spilled across Syria's borders.
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011.
To avoid an escalation of the road blockade, Hezbollah and the family of the dead fighter, 21-year-old Saleh Sabbagh, decided to bury him in another cemetery in the city, a senior Lebanese security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media. Sabbagh, the son of a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, was initially to be buried in the city's Sunni cemetery but ended up being interred in a Shiite burial place.
Most of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims back the Syrian opposition while Shiites support the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
Meanwhile, fighting continued Wednesday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Assad. Lebanese security officials said that since Sunday 10 people, including two Lebanese soldiers, have been killed and more than 100 wounded in Tripoli. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In Syria, at least 31 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the struggle for Qusair since Sunday, the Observatory said. The group, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria, said at least 83 rebels and nine Syrian soldiers were also killed, as well as six Lebanese fighting on the rebel side.
In the past days, Hezbollah has held several funerals in Lebanon for the fighters said to have died at Qusair.
Also on Wednesday, an international group known as the Friends of Syria is due to meet in Amman, Jordan. The closed-door meeting among diplomats from nations that back the Syrian uprising is aimed at preparing for U.N.-hosted international talks expected to be held in Geneva next month.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.