BEIRUT (AP) — Opponents and supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad traded heavy machine gun fire and mortar shells in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, leaving five people dead in what was described as some of the heaviest fighting there in years, officials said Thursday.
Tripoli has been a frequent flashpoint of sectarian tensions stoked by the civil war in neighboring Syria. The latest overnight deaths brought to 16 the number of people killed in clashes there this week, and the overall number of wounded rose to 190, said a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
In comments by Lebanon's state-run National News Agency, Cabinet minister Faisal Karami said the fighting was among the worst in the city since Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Regime supporters and opponents live close to each other in the city. The divisions largely run along ethnic lines, with many Sunni Muslims supporting the Syrian rebels and Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, backing the regime. Assad is an Alawite.
The spike in Tripoli tensions has been linked to a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel-held city of Qusair in western Syria this week. The battle has pitted regime forces and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, a regime ally, against rebel units.
Fighting in Qusair continued for a fifth day Thursday, after Syrian opposition leaders urged rebels from elsewhere to converge on the town, which is strategically important to both sides.
The regime would solidify control in the heavily populated west if it retakes the town which links the capital Damascus with the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean cost.
For the rebels, predominantly Sunni Qusair is part of a supply line of weapons and fighters from nearby Lebanon.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said Thursday that 46 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the battle for Qusair. In the past, Hezbollah tried to play down its involvement in the civil war, but its high-profile role in Qusair has made that impossible. Hezbollah has held funerals for fighters who officials close to the group say died at Qusair.
Overall, at least 104 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria in recent months, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria.
Hezbollah's growing involvement has prompted international condemnation. In Europe, officials said Wednesday that the EU is reassessing whether to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, a move it has long shied from despite pressure from the U.S.
Elsewhere in Syria, rebel fighters captured an army base late Wednesday, a rare victory after a series of battlefield setbacks, the Observatory said.
The group said at least 40 pro-regime troops and 14 rebels were killed in the battle for the base, near the northwestern town of Nairab.
Syria's main opposition bloc, meanwhile, welcomed a new demand by its main foreign supporters that Assad step down as part of any talks on ending the civil war.
However, Louay Safi, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, said Thursday that only written guarantees can bring the opposition to the table.
Disagreements over Assad's fate have been a key obstacle to international efforts to end to Syria's civil war.
The dispute could jeopardize a new attempt to launch talks between the regime and the opposition at an international conference in Geneva. The aim of the talks is to form a joint transition government.
On Wednesday, the U.S. along with key European and Arab supporters of Syria's opposition said Assad must relinquish power at the start of a transition period. However, Syria ally Russia, a co-sponsor of the Geneva talks, has not committed to Assad's departure, and the Syrian leader has said he will not step down before elections are held.
The statement by the opposition's foreign backers in Amman, Jordan appeared aimed in part in persuading Syria's opposition to come to the table.
Assad's departure at the start of a transition period is a key demand of the Syrian National Coalition, which started three days of meetings in Istanbul, Turkey on Thursday.
"It is a positive statement," said Safi, a member of the coalition. "It's a commitment that is essential for the opposition and the Syrian people."
However, the opposition will not attend the Geneva talks, tentatively set for next month, unless invitations say that Assad's departure from power is one of the goals of the negotiations, he said.
"If the transition and if the removal of Assad is not on the table, this is a non-starter for all the opposition," Safi said by phone from Istanbul.
During its three-day meeting, the coalition is to lay out its positions on peace talks, discuss bringing in other groups and elect a new leadership.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday acknowledged the difficulties of launching peace talks. "Nobody has any illusions about how difficult, complicated, what a steep climb that is," he said during a visit to Israel.
"But we also understand that the killing that is taking place, the massacres that are taking place, the incredible destabilization of Syria, is spilling over into Lebanon, into Jordan, and has an impact, obviously, on Israel," he said.
Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Associated Press writer Bradley S. Klapper in Jerusalem contributed reporting.