Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have tightened their stranglehold on the town of Qusair. Rebels have stepped up efforts to defend their former stronghold, which has strategic value for both sides.
Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, with support from militants from the Shiite movement Hezbollah, intensified their assault on Qusair on Saturday as rebels dug in to defend the frontier town.
Opposition activists said the fighting was at its most intense since the government forces began their assault last Sunday. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the day began with a barrage of rocket fire, mortar rounds and tank shells.
The Observatory reported that more than 22 people in opposition-held areas had been killed by Saturday afternoon, mostly rebels.
Syrian state media said troops had gradually been gaining ground during the week, and continued to do so.
The town is of strategic significance to the government because it lies on a land corridor that links Damascus with government-loyalist towns on the Syrian coast. For the rebels, the town is important in protecting their supply lines coming from Lebanon, only 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
Rebels said they had deployed additional tanks and artillery close to the town.
Al-Assad's forces are believed to have seized some two-thirds of the town, largely surrounding the rebels. The fighting on Saturday saw the government troops enter Dabaa airport - one of their key objectives.
Hezbollah's Nasrallah vows 'victory' in Syria
Lebanon-based Hezbollah is understood to receive significant logistical and intelligence support from Assad, as part of an alliance with Syria and Iran against Israel and neighboring Sunni countries.
On Saturday evening Hebollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a televised speech in which he vowed that the militant group would stay in Syria until "the end of the road" and bring "victory" to President Assad's forces.
In the speech to mark the 13th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Nasrallah also comfirmed that fighters loyal to his movement were actively involved in the conflict in Syria and had been for some time.
"We cannot stand idle at what is happening in Syria. Syria is the resistance's (Hezbollah) main supporter and the resistance cannot let them break its backbone," Nasrallah said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition resumed talks on Saturday aimed at unifying their splintered ranks in anticipation of a possible international peace conference in Geneva in the near future.
rc/pfd (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)