Syria regime unleashes artillery barrage on strategic rebel town

BEIRUT (AP) - Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shelled a strategic western town on Saturday in their heaviest barrage of a week-long battle to dislodge rebels from there, activists said.

Qusair is important to Mr Assad because it sits on a land corridor linking two of his strongholds, the capital of Damascus and towns on the Mediterranean coast. For the rebels, holding Qusair means protecting a supply line to Lebanon, 10km away.

Saturday's barrage of rockets, mortar rounds and tank shells began after daybreak, said Qusair activist Hadi Abdullah and the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain. Both said it was the most intense shelling since the regime launched its offensive there a week ago. They also reported heavy gunfire. The Observatory said at least seven people were killed. The intense shelling could be heard in Lebanon's border areas and in the Syrian city of Homs, some 25km away.

The fighting over Qusair has highlighted Hizbollah's growing role in Syria's civil war. The militia initially tried to play down its involvement, but could no longer do so after several dozen of its fighters were killed in Qusair and buried in large funerals in Lebanon.

The Syrian fighting has repeatedly spilled over into Lebanon, whose sectarian divide mirrors that of Syria. Assad opponents and supporters have been clashing for the past week in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, using mortars, grenades and machine guns to attack densely populated areas.

Four people were killed by sniper fire on Saturday, bringing the week's death toll to 29, including three Lebanese soldiers, said a Lebanese official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. More than 200 people have been wounded.

The fighting pits the predominantly Sunni Muslim district of Bab al-Tabbaneh against Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in the adjacent Jabal Mohsen area. Mr Assad is an Alawite while most rebels are Sunnis.

Hizbollah is also facing repercussions in Europe over its support for the Syrian military. Earlier this week, France and Germany joined a push by Britain to have the European Union declare Hizbollah's military wing a terrorist organisation. Such a move, long sought by the United States, would hamper Hizbollah operations in Europe.

Late on Friday, Hizbollah's deputy chief, Sheikh Naim Kassem told the Lebanese TV station Al-Mayadeen that the EU would make a "big mistake", but that such warnings do not concern the group. He did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, Syria's fractured political opposition was meeting for a third day in Istanbul, Turkey on Saturday to elect new leaders, try to widen its base and forge a unified position ahead of possible peace talks with the regime.

The US and Russia want to bring together representatives of the opposition and the Syrian government at an international conference in Geneva for talks on a possible transition government. Much remains up in the air, including the date, the agenda and the list of participants.