Hezbollah fighters attack Syrian al Qaeda gathering along border

AMMAN (Reuters) - Lebanese Hezbollah militants attacked a gathering of leaders of al Qaeda's Syrian branch and other insurgents in an area along Lebanon's eastern border with Syria on Wednesday, killing three of them, the group's television channel said. Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, has sent hundreds of combatants to fight alongside his forces. The television channel said the operation against Nusra Front took place in a rugged mountainous area along the border that has witnessed frequent clashes. The station said the fighters killed three militant leaders, including the local chief of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. Later Manar television station said the Syrian army and its allies, a reference to Hezbollah, had seized part of a strategic hilltop in Lebanon's eastern border area known as Kherbat al Nahla that overlooks Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region, where Syrian jihadist militants are entrenched. Hezbollah's leader said on Tuesday his Lebanon-based militant group would launch an attack inside Syria against al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the mountain region along the countries' border. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah did not give a date when the assault would be launched, but local media and the Syria opposition speculated could start in the Qalamoun area. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday's attack took place in that area. Although the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah, has regained much of the strategic Qalamoun region that lies north of Damascus since last year, hundreds of Syrian jihadist rebels have retreated to the mountains to conduct guerilla hit-and-run attacks. The Qalamoun area along the porous border has long been a crucial route for arms and Islamist rebel fighters from Lebanon to enter Syria. The Lebanese Shi'ite fighters clashed with gunmen from Nusra Front in a different border zone on Tuesday. Lebanese officials have warned Hezbollah against launching a cross-border attack, which they say would drag Lebanon, which suffered a civil war in 1975-90, further into the Syrian conflict. (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)