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Government forces in Syria attack rebel stronghold of Qusair

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces launched a long-planned offensive early Sunday on the strategic city of Qusair and neighboring rebel-controlled villages near the Lebanese border, with heavy shelling that began shortly after midnight, according to opposition and pro-regime accounts. 

The attack comes after a period of relative calm in the area, opposition supporters said, but may be a prelude to a larger ground offensive by Syrian army units and Hezbollah fighters coming from neighboring Lebanon, where the Shiite militant group is based.

There was no confirmation Sunday from Hezbollah that its militiamen were involved in the battle to retake Qusair, which has been in rebel hands for more than a year.

Pro-government media reports said President Bashar Assad's troops had entered the town in Homs province, long a rebel stronghold.

Accounts of the fighting in Syria are difficult to verify independently because the government restricts access by international journalists, and the United Nations pulled out its observers last year.

Qusair, just a few miles from Syria's border with Lebanon, is of strategic significance to both sides in Syria’s more than two-year conflict. It is along the corridor used by rebels to smuggle weapons and fighters into the city of Homs, Syria’s third largest, while the government seeks to maintain an open road from Homs south to the capital, Damascus.

Qusair once had a population of about 40,000 but most residents have fled. It has been the site of fierce clashes between opposition and government forces.

The new offensive comes after a string of government victories that have pushed back rebel forces in Homs province, one of the most contested zones in the conflict, as well as elsewhere in Syria.

The United Nations estimates that the conflict has killed at least 80,000 people and created more than 1.5-million refugees.

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Bulos is a special correspondent.

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