Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen captured at least one village in heavy fighting Sunday in a strategic area near the Lebanese border, activists and state media reported.
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The fighting around the contested town of Qusair in Homs province has intensified during the past two weeks as the Syrian military, supported by pro-government fighters backed by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, has pursued a campaign to regain control of the border area.
The frontier region near the provincial capital of Homs holds strategic value because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawite minority, and is home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib ahead of the meeting, was expected to announce a significant expansion of nonlethal military aid to the opposition, American officials in Washington said. The supplies could include body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.
On Saturday, Lebanese authorities evacuated schools in the mostly Shiite villages of al-Qasr, Bouweydah and Hawch, which are located just inside Lebanon, amid fears that Syria's rebels could target the residents. Later in the day, the state-run National News Agency reported that two rockets fell near al-Qasr, causing material damage.
NNA also said two mortar rounds launched from Syria landed in the Lebanese town of Hermel. While there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, it was the first time shelling had struck the town well inside the border and marked an escalation in violence along the already tense frontier.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency said government troops gained control Saturday of four key villages - Qadesh, Mansourieh, Saadiyeh and Radwaniyeh - in Homs province. The villages are all close to Qusair.
However, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces and pro-government gunmen captured only the village of Radwaniyeh, and that they were still fighting for full control of other villages. It said at least six rebels were killed in the clashes.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Syrian warplanes were taking part in the fighting.
The Observatory also reported fighting and shelling on Saturday west of Damascus where the army has been attacking rebel positions in the areas of Jdaidet Artouz and Jdaidet al-Fadel. It said 69 people had been killed during the past four days there.
In eastern Syria, 10 days of clashes between residents of the village of Masrab and members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, left 37 people dead including foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, the Observatory said.
It added that the fighting began after a diesel tanker owner complained to Nusra Front members that villagers had taken his truck. Three members of the group went into the village to mediate, but were shot dead, according to the Observatory.
During the fighting, government forces dropped weapons and ammunition to help the villagers battle the Nusra Front, the Observatory said.
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