BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen killed a government official in a Damascus restaurant, Syrian state media and activists reported Friday as regime troops and rebels fought fierce battles near the Lebanese border, killing 18 people in Syria's third largest city of Homs.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government official, Ali Ballan, was gunned down late Thursday in Mazzeh, a western neighborhood of the Syrian capital. Ballan was head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, the Observatory said.
The state-run SANA news agency said "terrorists" opened fire on Ballan while he was dining at the restaurant, killing him instantly. The government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists, denying there is an insurgency against President Bashar Assad's regime.
Since Syria's crisis began two years ago, a number of government and security officials, as well as regime supporters, have been assassinated in the capital, Damascus.
Last month, a suicide bomber struck a mosque, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and outspoken Assad supporter, Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti.
On July 18, a bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting killed top security officials, including the defense minister and his deputy, who was also Assad's brother-in-law, and wounded the interior minister. Rebels claimed responsibility for that blast.
Heavy fighting was reported near the contested town of Qusair in the central Syrian province of Homs, along the Lebanese border. On Thursday, government forces captured a town in the province and rebels seized a military base in the area. Eighteen people were killed on Friday in the shelling of Deir Baalba district on the eastern edge of the city of Homs, the Observatory said.
The border region in Homs is strategic because it also links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. The coast also is home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus. Assad's regime is dominated by his Alawites while the rebels are mostly from the country's Sunni majority.
On Thursday, government forces captured the town of Abel, cutting off the road between Homs and Qusair, said Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman.
Abdul-Rahman said the regime appeared to be trying to conduct a siege on Qusair. The town has seen clashes and anti-government protests since the early days of the crisis in Syria.
"The fighting is heavy and there are many deaths on both sides," Abdul-Rahman said.
For their part, the rebels on Thursday captured the Dabaa military complex in Homs after weeks of fighting with government forces. Dabaa is a former air force base that has an airfield, which hasn't been used since the fighting broke out more than two years ago.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Syrian army warplanes bombarded the area around Qusair on Friday.
Both activist groups also reported heavy clashes in Damascus's southern suburb of Daraya, which the regime has been trying to recapture for months. They also reported clashes in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa in the north and in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began.
In the country's east, there were reports of heavy fighting in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, with clashes between government troops and rebels concentrated on the airport in the outskirts of the provincial capital. There were no immediate reports on the casualties in the fighting.
Abdul-Rahman said rebels were attacking an army base near the town of Busra al-Harir in Daraa. A video aired on Al Arabiya TV showed rebels using a multiple rocket launcher, reportedly during the attack on Daraa base.
SANA also reported late Thursday that government troops shot down an air balloon that carried what the agency described as "American cameras" over the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province. It did not elaborate.
Syria's crisis began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the United Nations.
More than 5 million Syrians have fled their homes because of the relentless fighting, seeking shelter in neighboring countries or in other parts of Syria where the violence has temporarily subsided.
In the past few weeks, U.N.'s humanitarian agencies have warned that they were running low on resources and that without additional funds they would be forced to scale back relief efforts.
On Thursday, U.N.'s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said children were starving to death in Syria and asked the Security Council to approve cross-border relief operations into Syria to deliver aid them and other civilians.
About half of the $1.5 billion needed to fund Syria's humanitarian needs through June has been collected, Amos said, noting a recent $300 million pledge from Kuwait.
Amos said 6.8 million Syrians were in need, with 4.25 million displaced within Syria and 1.3 million as refugees in neighboring countries.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, thanked Turkey for accepting Syrian refugees, and called on the international community to provide funds to help Jordan and Lebanon operate their refugee camps and cope with the stream of refugees.
The Security Council has been deadlocked for months on the Syrian war, and even the most modest attempts to end the bloodshed have failed.
Western and Arab nations blame the conflict on Assad's government. Russia insists on assigning equal blame for the suffering to the Syrian opposition and rebels fighting on the ground, and has cast vetoes, along with China, to block draft council resolutions.
Later Friday, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was scheduled to brief the Security Council behind closed doors.