The Syrian army has pounded the rebel-held central town of Qusayr, killing at least 51 people in an apparent preparation for a ground assault, watchdog and activists said.
The attack on Sunday came a day after a rare interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was released, in which he said that his government was not using “fighters from outside of Syria, of other nationalities, and needs no support from any Arab or foreign state”.
There are now conflicting reports as to whether or not government forces have entered the town centre, with state TV reporting the army is inside the walls, but the opposition fighters telling Al Jazeera that this is not the case.
Reports coming out of Qusayr, which is in Homs province, said fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement assisted the military.
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen el-Shamayleh, reporting from Amman, said that regaining control of the town was essential to pro-Assad forces.
“We’re hearing that the military is getting help from Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, which is a staunch ally of Damascus,” she said.
“The rebels are calling for more help and weapons to try to face the Syrian government [forces]. It seems like a very heavy offensive, that could turn into a ground assault, according to activists.
If the military overpowers the rebels in Qusayr, “it’s a very strategic win, because the town connects Assad’s seat of power, Damascus, with the towns on the coast, many of which support him,” she said.
Speaking from Qusayr, anti-government activist Hadi Abdallah said Syrian warplanes bombed the town in the morning and shells were hitting the town at a rate of up to 50 a minute.
“The army is hitting Qusayr with tanks and artillery from the north and east while Hezbollah is firing mortar rounds and
multiple rocket launchers from the south and west,” he said.
Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut said that Assad would want control of Qusayr before the conference being planned for June to discuss a resolution to the conflict.
“There are several different strategic, diplomatic, and political factors that makes Qusayr particularly important,” he said.
“It is the heartland of the Alawite community, it has been used as a conduit for supplies, men and guns going in to Syria, and it is close to Lebanon.
“Assad wants to make sure he is in the strongest position possible if this conference takes place.”
Abu Imad, another anti-government activist in the Qusayr region, said the rebel grip was tenuous but the army was not yet in control of the town.
“If Qusayr falls, it will be a big problem because the regime will be in control of most of the countryside south of the city of Homs and the rebel forces holding old Homs will be squeezed,” he said.
Our correspondent said that the death toll was likely to rise, as many people were critically injured in the onslaught, and that opposition fighters were reporting that most of the dead were civilians.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground, also reported an intense bombardment of Qusayr, which the Syrian regime has been trying to recapture.
“A rain of shells on the city, at the same time as artillery fire and mortar fire from dawn. Homes were destroyed and burnt down,” the group said.
The Qusayr district of Homs province has been the focus of fierce fighting between government forces and the rebels in recent weeks.
Assad spoke to the Argentine newspaper Clarin and the Argentine state news agency Telam in a frank and lengthy interview in Damascus, released on Saturday, in which he insisted that he will not resign before elections in 2014.
He also denied that his government has used chemical weapons against the civilian population, and blamed foreign intervention for the crisis.
His comments come amid a rare joint push by the US and Russia to convene the peace conference in Geneva, which he cautiously welcomed.
“We have received the Russian-US approach well and we hope that there will be an international conference to help Syrians overcome the crisis,” Clarin quoted Assad as saying.
“We must be clear … there is confusion in the world over a political solution and terrorism.
“They think that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground. This is unrealistic.”