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Syrian opposition urges rebels to join key battle

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 4:26pm  ET

This citizen journalism image provided by Qusair Lens, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man checking his destroyed house that was damaged by a Syrian forces air strike in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, Homs province, Syria, Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Several members of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group died of wounds sustained while fighting for control of a strategic Syrian town near the Lebanese border, activists said Tuesday, as the battle in the area raged for its third straight day. (AP Photo/Qusair Lens)

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's main opposition alliance on Wednesday urged fighters 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.

With its appeal, the Syrian National Coalition sought to bolster embattled rebel forces in Qusair who for a fourth straight day Wednesday came under fierce assault by government troops.

The town, which is near the border with Lebanon, lies at the heart of a government offensive to secure a strategic strip running from the capital, Damascus, to the Mediterranean coast and Syria's seaports.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah group has been fighting alongside Syrian regime forces in the town and surrounding areas in Homs province for weeks. Hezbollah has been trying to keep a low profile, but could no longer do so after several dozen of its fighters were killed in the battle over Qusair.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in neighboring Jordan, called on Iran and Hezbollah to stop helping Assad, saying this activity "perpetuates the regime's campaign of terror against its own people."

Underlining the importance of Qusair, George Sabra, head of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, on Wednesday urged rebels from all over Syria to join the fight for the town.

Opposition fighters in Qusair were holding out Wednesday, but appeared to be under increasing strain as government tanks and artillery pounded the town and warplanes bombed it from the sky.

A local government official from the Homs governor's office told The Associated Press that about 80 percent of Qusair 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 discovered tunnels linking areas around the town, and 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 activist group, said Syrian government and Hezbollah units were bombarding Qusair with rockets on Wednesday.

The Observatory said at least 31 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the battle for Qusair since Sunday. 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.

A video released by activists on Tuesday showed destruction in several areas in the city as well as heavy damage to the minaret of Qusair's grand mosque that was riddled with bullets and shells.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

Hezbollah's role in the fighting in Qusair has ratcheted up tensions in neighboring Lebanon, which has been on edge since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed.

Most of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims back the Syria's predominantly Sunni opposition, while Shiites support the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.

More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced by the conflict that erupted more than two years ago.

Fighting raged Wednesday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Assad. Lebanese security officials said that at least 10 people, including two Lebanese soldiers, have been killed and more than 100 wounded since Sunday in Tripoli. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Also Wednesday, the U.N. agency aiding Palestinian refugees across the Middle East said between 70 percent to 80 percent of the half million Palestinian refugees in Syria were uprooted over the past two years.

Despite the fighting, the international community hopes to bring representatives of the regime and the opposition to an international conference in June to launch peace talks. The goal is to form a joint transitional government to pave the way for elections, but gaps between the sides remain wide.

Kerry told reporters in Amman on Wednesday that the United States and its Arab and European allies will step up their support for Syria's opposition to help them "fight for the freedom of their country" if Assad does not engage in peace talks in good faith.

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