Syrian troops backed by tanks and warplanes have launched an assault on a strategic rebel-held town near the Lebanese border, killing at least 30 people and forcing residents to scramble for cover, activists said.
The town of Qusair has been besieged for weeks by regime troops and pro-government gunmen backed by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group. The siege is part of a regime offensive that aims to regain control of the towns and villages along the frontier with Lebanon.
The border region's strategic value is twofold: it links Damascus with the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the heartland of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam; and rebels smuggle weapons and supplies from Lebanon across the frontier to opposition fighters inside Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 30 people, including 16 rebel fighters and one woman, were killed in Qusair in fighting on Sunday, but that the death toll was expected to rise as government troops continue to try to push into the town.
A government official in the nearby provincial capital of Homs said that regime troops have encircled the town and that "the offensive to liberate Qusair has begun".
The official said the army has built up its forces on three fronts around Qusair while leaving one clear for "safe passage for fleeing civilians and the armed terrorists who want to surrender".
The official said government forces have advanced into the town, taking over the municipality building and other vital government institutions.
But Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Qusair reached on Skype, denied the regime made any advances on the ground. He said the municipality was destroyed in fighting six months ago, and that there's no government building left to take over.
He said heavy shelling began late Saturday and continued through Sunday, and that civilians have sought shelter in basements
"It's the heaviest since the beginning of the revolution," he said, adding that at least 17 houses have been destroyed.