BEIRUT (AP) — Three members of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group died of wounds sustained while fighting for control of a strategic Syrian town near the Lebanese border, activists said Tuesday, as the battle in the area raged for its third straight day.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths raise to 31 the number of fighters Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has lost in the struggle for the town of Qusair since Sunday.
The town, which had been in rebel hands for more than a year, was the target of a government offensive in recent weeks, with the surrounding countryside engulfed in fighting as regime troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized nearby villages and closed in. On Sunday, Assad's forces pushed deep inside Qusair, taking control of more than 60 percent of the town, but still fighting street battles with rebels in several districts.
At least 68 Syrian rebels and 9 Syrian army soldiers were also killed in the fighting since Sunday, the Observatory said. The group relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria.
The government has not confirmed the soldiers' deaths because Damascus does not publicly acknowledge its own losses in the civil war. Now in its third year, the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives.
UNICEF said it was "extremely concerned" about the safety of civilians in the embattled town. In a statement Tuesday, the UN child protection agency said up to 20,000 civilians, many of them women and children, could be trapped there by the fighting.
In recent days, hundreds of families have fled into Lebanon, while many others have sought shelter in safer parts of Syria, UNICEF said, adding that it and other aid agencies are providing much needed humanitarian assistance including food, clothes, water and hygiene kits to many of those who have been displaced.
The fighting in Qusair reflects the importance both sides attach to the area.
The town of about 40,000 residents lies along a strategic land corridor linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. For the rebels, who like the town are predominantly Sunni, the area has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to the opposition inside Syria.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement, is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime and is known to have sent fighters to aid government forces. The group's growing role in the conflict next door points to the deeply sectarian nature of the war in Syria, in which a rebellion driven by the country's Sunni majority seeks to overthrow a regime dominated by the Alawite minority.
Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian war has raised tensions considerably in Lebanon and strengthened concerns of the conflict spilling over the country's volatile border.
Six people were wounded in the border area on Tuesday after six Syrian shells landed on the Lebanese side, Lebanese security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Observatory also reported clashes and shelling elsewhere on Tuesday, including in the north, where the opposition holds large swathes of territory and whole neighborhoods inside Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Aleppo province, clashes were concentrated around the Kweiras and Mannagh military air bases, the Observatory said.
In Damascus province, three people were killed and 24 others were wounded in mortar attacks on the town of Mleiha, near the capital, state-run SANA news agency said. The report said "terrorist groups" operating near Damascus, the seat of Assad's government, were behind the attacks that also caused significant material damage.
The Syrian government refers to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad's regime as terrorists and Islamic extremists that are part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against the country.
Also Tuesday, Syria said it destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights overnight. The Israeli military however said gunfire from Syria had merely hit an Israeli patrol, damaging a vehicle and prompting its troops to fire back.
Sporadic fire from Syria has occasionally hit the Israeli-controlled area, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 war. Israel assumes most of the incidents are accidental but its forces have responded on several occasions. Tuesday's incident, however, was the first time the Syrian army acknowledged firing at Israeli troops across the frontier.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.