- Associated Press - Saturday, May 25, 2013

BEIRUT — Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad shelled a strategic western town on Saturday in their heaviest barrage of a week-long battle to dislodge rebels from the opposition stronghold, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 22 people including 18 rebels were killed and dozens wounded in the fighting in Qusair.

Pro-Assad troops, including fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have been trying to push rebels out of Qusair. Syrian state media has said government forces steadily gained ground, including on Saturday. Local activists have denied regime gains and said rebel fighters are defending 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, mortar rounds and tank shells began after daybreak, said Qusair activist Hadi Abdullah and the pro-opposition Observatory. Both said it was the most intense shelling since the regime launched its offensive there a week ago. They also reported heavy gunfire.

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 the growing role of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah 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.

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