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BEIRUT – Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen fought fierce battles with rebels on Saturday in a strategic area in Homs province near the Lebanese border, activists and state media in Damascus reported.
The latest fighting came as U.S. officials said the Obama administration was poised to send millions more in non-lethal military aid to rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad.
The clashes around the contested town of Qusair, close to the Syria-Lebanon boundary, had intensified over the past two weeks amid a fresh offensive by the Syrian army and a pro-government militia known as Popular Committees, backed by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group.
The border region near the provincial capital of Homs is strategic because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawites, a sect from which Assad hails, and is also home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
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 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 rebels fighting on the ground, and has cast vetoes, along with China, to block draft council resolutions.
On Friday, U.S. officials in Washington said Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce a significant expansion of non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition at an international conference on Syria he will attend Saturday in Turkey. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to preview Kerry's announcement publicly.
Also, the European Union is looking for ways to bolster the forces fighting to oust Assad, and 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, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal decision by the bloc's 27 foreign ministers at a meeting Monday in Luxembourg.
On the Lebanese side of the border, schools were evacuated Saturday in the mostly Shiite villages of al-Qasr, Bouweydah and Hawch amid fears that Syria's rebels could target the residents. Later in the day, state-run National News Agency reported that two rockets fell near al-Qasr, causing material damage.
Last week, rockets from the Syrian side killed two people in al-Qasr and Hawch. While Assad and top officials in his regime belong to the minority Alawites, most of the rebels belong to Syria's Sunni majority.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA 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.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were casualties on both sides but gave no specifics. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Syrian warplanes were taking part in the fighting.
The Popular Committees were 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. The fighting intensified after the army launched a wide attack on the area in the past 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 and 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 over the past four days there. Syria's conflict, which started as largely peaceful protests against Assad's government but later descended into civil war, has killed more than 70,000 people so far, according to the United Nations.
Both activist groups, the Observatory and the LCC, also reported fighting Saturday in other areas, including Aleppo and Idlib in the north, Deir el-Zour to the east and Daraa in the south.
SANA said a shell fell outside a sports club in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and once commercial center, killing two children.