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Assad Forces Try to Retake Border Town With Help From Hezbollah

May 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s army has been trying to retake a strategically critical town near the Lebanon border from rebels.

The sounds of an unrelenting battle in the Syrian border town of Qusayr could be heard for miles around. After a lengthy siege, government troops, joined by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, pushed into the town, home to an estimated 40,000 civilians. Warplanes and artillery joined the assault, and opposition activists said shells were dropping at a rate of 50 a minute.

MAN: Al-Qusayr is being destroyed by the Assad forces and Hezbollah militias. May God help us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Opposition activists reported nearly 30 Hezbollah fighters were killed and another 70 wounded. The rebels also claimed they destroyed four Syrian army tanks and five Hezbollah vehicles. Qusayr is important to both sides. For the regime, it lies along a corridor linking Damascus to the coast and the heartland of President Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

For the rebels, the overwhelmingly Sunni town is a route for arms smuggling. The fighting underscored how Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has steadily grown. The Shiite militant group and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have long supported Assad.

HASSAN NASRALLAH, Hezbollah Leader: There are true friends of Syria around the world, and they will not allow Syria to fall in the hands of Americans, Israel and Sunni extremists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington today, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell condemned Hezbollah’s intervention in the Qusayr fight.

PATRICK VENTRELL, State Department Deputy Spokesman: Hezbollah’s occupation of villages along the Lebanese-Syrian border and its support for the regime and pro-Assad militias exacerbate and inflame regional sectarian tensions and perpetuate the regime’s campaign of terror against the Syrian people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, with Hezbollah’s help, Assad’s forces have made gains of late, and this weekend, he told an Argentine newspaper he will not step down before elections.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, Syria: Any decisions having to do with reforms in Syria or any political action are local Syrian decisions. Neither the U.S. nor any other state is allowed to intervene in it. This issue is dealt with in Syria. You don’t go to a conference to decide on an issue that has not been determined by the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, the U.N. envoy’s representative arrived in Damascus, hoping to get the Syrians to attend an international conference brokered by the U.S. and Russia. It’s planned for some time next month in Geneva.