Syria regime unleashes artillery barrage on Qusair

BEIRUT: Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashed on Saturday their heaviest artillery and rocket barrage in a week-long battle to dislodge rebels from a strategic western town, activists said.

Pro-Assad troops, including fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have been trying to push rebels out of Qusair. They have gained ground, but rebels have clung to some positions.

Qusair is important to 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, 10 kilometers (six miles) away.

Saturday’s barrage of rockets 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 25 kilometers (15 miles) away.

The fighting over Qusair has highlighted Hezbollah’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.

Saturday’s push comes ahead of a widely anticipated speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, his first since the offensive began. The speech Saturday afternoon is to mark the anniversary of Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, commemorated each year by Hezbollah as a major military victory.