BEIRUT (AP) — 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.
The clashes came as U.S. officials said the Obama administration was poised to send up to $130 million more in nonlethal military aid to rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad. Any pledge was likely to fall far short of the demands of the Syrian opposition, which called for direct military involvement in the conflict.
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.
Syria's regime is dominated by Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels are primarily Sunni Muslims.
The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked for months on the Syrian war, and even the most modest attempts to end the bloodshed have failed. Western states and many Arab nations blame the conflict on Assad's government. Russia insists on assigning equal blame for the suffering to the Syrian opposition and the government, and has cast vetoes, along with China, to block draft council resolutions.
In Turkey, the Syrian opposition leadership and its international allies were gathering Saturday for a conference on the Syria conflict.
U.S. 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.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to preview Kerry's announcement publicly.
The fresh U.S. support was certain not to meet the strongest demands from the Syrian National Congress. The opposition umbrella group called for drone strikes to disable Assad's chemical weapon and missile capability; a no-fly zone requiring significant military operations; and a U.N. resolution that condemns Assad for attacks on Syrians.
"The technical ability to take specific action to prevent the human tragedy and suffering of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, is available," the group said in a statement before the conference ended.
"Syrians understand that such ability is within the reach of a number of members of the Friends of Syria group, yet nothing serious has been done to put an end to such terror and criminality."
Opposition political leaders and rebels on the ground have been clamoring for months for heavier weapons to help them overcome the regime's superior firepower, the U.S. and other Western nations have so far limited their support to nonlethal aid, partly out of concern that weapons could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks.
There is also little appetite in Western capitals for direct military involvement in the conflict along the lines of the NATO-led operation in Libya's 2011 civil war.
Like the U.S., the European Union also is looking for ways to bolster the forces fighting to oust Assad. The EU is set to ease its oil embargo on Syria, two diplomats said Friday. The decision would allow the import of oil production technology and the sale of crude from territory held by the Syrian opposition, in close coordination with the movement's leaders, the diplomats said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal decision by the bloc's 27 foreign ministers at a meeting Monday in Luxembourg.
Syria's crisis began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests, but morphed into a civil war as civilians and army defectors took up arms in the face of a brutal government crackdown. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to the U.N.
The conflict threatens to draw in neighboring states, and violence in the country has spilled over the borders on several occasions.
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 pro-regime militia, known as Popular Committees, was set up last year in Syria with Hezbollah's backing to protect Syrian villages inhabited by Lebanese Shiites. But even though Hezbollah confirms backing the Syrian militia, it denies taking part in Syria's civil war.
Qusair witnessed anti-government protests and clashes between troops and rebels in the early days of the uprising against Assad's regime in March 2011. The fighting intensified after the army launched a wide attack on the area in recent weeks.
Regime troops last week captured a hill overlooking several towns in the area and the highway linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast. On Thursday, government forces captured a town in the province, while rebels seized a military base in the area.
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-Qaida-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.
AP writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Istanbul contributed.