Syrian, Hezbollah troops fight rebels in key town
BEIRUT (AP) -- Backed by elite troops of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, Syrian government forces fought rebels in a strategic opposition-held Syrian town near the Lebanese border for the third straight day Tuesday.
Lebanese security officials said fighting between Syrian troops and rebels over the town of Qusair had spread to the village of Hit, on the Syrian side near the border with Lebanon. Two opposition fighters were killed and several others wounded, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with army regulations.
The Syrian conflict also spilled into Lebanon as factions supporting opposing sides in Syria's civil war fought in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli. The National News Agency said one person was killed and two others, including a Syrian citizen, were wounded in the clashes. Earlier in the day, six people were wounded in another border area close to Qusair after Syrian shells landed on the Lebanese side, the Lebanese officials said.
Qusair, which had been in rebel hands for more than a year, has been the target of a government offensive in recent weeks, with the surrounding countryside engulfed in fighting as regime troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized nearby villages and closed in. On Sunday, Assad's forces pushed deep inside the town, taking control of more than 60 percent of it, according to a Syrian official.
At least 31 fighters from the Hezbollah group, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, have been killed in the struggle for the town of Qusair since Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The group, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria, said at least 68 rebels and 9 army soldiers were also killed in fighting on Sunday and Monday. There were no reports of casualties in Tuesday's fighting in the area.
The government has not confirmed the soldiers' deaths because Damascus does not publicly acknowledge its own losses in the civil war. Now in its third year, the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives.
UNICEF said it was "extremely concerned" about the safety of civilians in Qusair. In a statement Tuesday, the UN child protection agency said up to 20,000 civilians, many of them women and children, could be trapped there by the fighting.
In recent days, hundreds of families have fled into Lebanon, while many others have sought shelter in safer parts of Syria, UNICEF said, adding that it and other aid agencies are providing much needed humanitarian assistance including food, clothes, water and hygiene kits to many of those who have been displaced.
The fighting in Qusair reflects the importance both sides attach to the area.
The town of about 40,000 residents lies along a strategic land corridor linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. For the rebels, who like the town are predominantly Sunni, the area has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to the opposition inside Syria.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement, is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime and is known to have sent fighters to aid government forces. The group's growing role in the conflict next door points to the deeply sectarian nature of the war in Syria, in which a rebellion driven by the country's Sunni majority seeks to overthrow a regime dominated by the Alawite minority.
Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian war has raised tensions considerably in Lebanon and strengthened concerns of the conflict spilling over the country's volatile border.
The Observatory also reported clashes and shelling elsewhere on Tuesday, including in the north, where the opposition holds large swathes of territory and whole neighborhoods inside Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Aleppo province, clashes were concentrated around the Kweiras and Mannagh military air bases, the Observatory said.
In Damascus province, three people were killed and 24 others were wounded in mortar attacks on the town of Mleiha, near the capital, state-run SANA news agency said. The report said "terrorist groups" operating near Damascus, the seat of Assad's government, were behind the attacks that also caused significant material damage.
The Syrian government refers to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad's regime as terrorists and Islamic extremists that are part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against the country.
Also Tuesday, Syria said it destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights overnight. The Israeli military however said gunfire from Syria had merely hit an Israeli patrol, damaging a vehicle and prompting its troops to fire back.
Sporadic fire from Syria has occasionally hit the Israeli-controlled area, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 war. Israel assumes most of the incidents are accidental but its forces have responded on several occasions. Tuesday's incident, however, was the first time the Syrian army acknowledged firing at Israeli troops across the frontier.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.