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Syrian forces battle for area near Lebanese border

BEIRUT -- Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen fought fierce battles with rebels 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 nonlethal military aid to rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad.

The clashes around the contested town of Qusair 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 UN 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 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.-- AP

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