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Syria rebels fight on as peace talks pressure mounts

A picture from the opposition Al-Qusayr Media Centre is said to show a man in the rubble of Qusayr on May 22, 2013
A picture released by the opposition Al-Qusayr Media Centre is said to show a Syrian man walking in the rubble of the city of Qusayr following air strikes by government forces on May 22, 2013.

Syrian rebels kept up resistance Saturday to a massive assault on a strategic central town as pressure grew on the opposition to attend a peace conference after the regime agreed to do so.

The main opposition National Coalition has met in Istanbul for three days trying to overcome deep divisions over Russian and US proposals to convene a conference to which representatives of President Bashar al-Assad would be invited without any formal precondition for him to step down.

The opposition's long-standing position is that, after more than two years of devastating conflict has killed more than 94,000 people, it will not negotiate until Assad agrees to leave.

The intervention of hundreds of fighters of Shiite militant group Hezbollah from neighbouring Lebanon has given the regime the upper hand in Qusayr.

Syrian rebels take position in a house during clashes with regime forces in the old city of Aleppo on May 22, 2013
Syrian rebels take position in a house during clashes with regime forces in the old city of Aleppo on May 22, 2013.

Loyalists overran a disused military airport on Saturday just north of the besieged town, where the rebels had set up base, a military source said.

But six days after the regime assault began, fierce resistance continued from the rebels, for whom Qusayr provides an important supply line for arms and volunteers from nearby Lebanon.

"The fighting and shelling, which took place on Saturday on the main roads inside and outside of Qusayr, are the most intense since the beginning of the offensive," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdul Rahman.

Qusayr is a key prize for Assad because of its strategic location between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland of the embattled president's regime.

Members of Hezbollah carry the coffin of a  comrade killed in Syria, in Lebanon's Bekaa valley on May 23, 2013
Members of Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite Muslim movement carry the coffin of a comrade killed in Syria during his funeral in the village of Haret al-Fikani, in the Bekaa valley, on May 23, 2013.

Abdul Rahman said "the intensification of the fighting can be explained by Hezbollah's desire to score points before the speech their leader Hassan Nasrallah is due to deliver this evening."

Saturday marked the 13th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon after 22 years of occupation, and Nasrallah was due to address supporters to celebrate.

His comments were being closely watched after rare criticism of Hezbollah on Friday from Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, who warned it against its intervention in Syria and urged it to confine its activities to defence against Israel.

Anti-regime demonstrators across Syria denounced the Hezbollah chief on Friday. They waved placards reading "Nasrallah, impostor of the resistance," and "Homs is not Jerusalem," a reference to the Syrian central province in which Qusayr lies.

Lebanese University politics professor Ghassan al-Azzi said Hezbollah was staking a lot on its intervention in support of its ally Assad and his Iranian backers.

"The Iranians asked Hezbollah to make decisive and public intervention because this conflict will decide the future of the alliance between Iran and Syria and perhaps the future of the whole region," Azzi said.

Turkish protesters wave Syrian rebel flags  and chant slogans during a demonstration  in Istanbul on May 24, 2013
Turkish protesters wave Syrian rebel flags and chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul on May 24, 2013.

"Hezbollah has done so even though it has damaged its image in Lebanon and around the Arab world."

Of concern to world powers is that the offensive in Qusayr has sparked renewed clashes between Assad supporters and opponents inside Lebanon.

Fighting between them in the Lebanese port of Tripoli has killed 28 people since Sunday, a security source said.

Meanwhile, Syria's eastern neighbour Iraq launched a major security operation in the border region deploying 20,000 troops to clear suspected rebel rear bases and secure a key highway, senior officers said.

In Istanbul, the opposition National Coalition, wrong-footed by Moscow's announcement that regime representatives had agreed to attend next month's planned peace conference, called on Damascus to give concrete evidence of its readiness for a transition of power.

"It's very important for us to have goodwill gestures, and from both sides," spokesman Khaled al-Saleh told reporters after a second day of talks on Friday.

"We want to make sure that when we enter those negotiations the bloodshed in Syria will stop."

The United States and Russia, which support opposite sides in Syria's conflict, announced their joint proposal for a peace conference earlier this month.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are to meet in Paris on Monday to step up their efforts to organise the gathering.

Syria's opposition has been deeply divided over whether to take part.

Some within the Coalition said it should negotiate if talks lead to Assad's departure, while others have expressed reservations.

The opposition has held intensive consultations this week, meeting with its key backers Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States and France, Saleh said.

"We're listening to our partner countries... What I can say, and this is my own impression, is that the international community wants us to form a vision we're all united around, and we're starting to work through that."

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Assad should have no role in the proposed conference.

"We support the will of the Syrian people, which has expressed its will clearly, saying it does not wish to see any role in the conference for Bashar al-Assad, or any of those whose hands are stained with Syrian blood," he said.