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Syrian forces, rebels clash near Lebanese border

BEIRUT -- Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen captured at least one village in heavy fighting Sunday in a strategic area near the Lebanese border, activists and state media reported.

The fighting around the contested town of Qusair in Homs province has intensified during the past two weeks as the Syrian military, supported by pro-government fighters backed by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, has pursued a campaign to regain control of the border area.

The frontier region near the provincial capital of Homs holds strategic value because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawite minority, and is home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.

Syria's regime is dominated by Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, while the rebels are primarily Sunni Muslims.

On Saturday, Lebanese authorities evacuated schools in the mostly Shia villages of al-Qasr, Bouweydah and Hawch, which are located just inside Lebanon, amid fears that Syria's rebels could target the residents. Later in the day, the state-run National News Agency reported that two rockets fell near al-Qasr, causing material damage.

NNA also said two mortar rounds launched from Syria landed in the Lebanese town of Hermel. While there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, it was the first time shelling had struck the town well inside the border and marked an escalation in violence along the already tense frontier.

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