National News

Clashes on Syria-Lebanon border kill several

By Albert Aji And Bassem Mroue, The Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria - Syrian Red Crescent trucks loaded with 1,000 food parcels crossed into a rebel-held Damascus suburb that has been besieged by government troops for more than two years as heavy clashes broke out between Syrian rebels and Hezbollah fighters near the Syria-Lebanon border.

The border area has long been a flashpoint in the Syrian civil war.

Since November, Syrian government troops, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, have been on the offensive in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region, trying to clear it of opposition fighters. The government side has so far captured most towns and villages there but hundreds of rebels are still active in the rugged region.

The latest clashes broke out on Sunday after Syrian rebels tried to infiltrate into Lebanon and clashed with Hezbollah fighters, said officials in eastern Lebanon, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

They said the fighting, which took place near the Lebanese village of Youneen, ended at dawn on Monday after Hezbollah took control of the nearby hills.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting left seven Hezbollah fighters dead and 31 wounded. The activist group said 17 rebels were killed and 23 wounded, and that Hezbollah fighters captured 14 rebels.

The Lebanese officials confirmed that a number of Hezbollah fighters were killed in the battles, without giving a figure. Facebook pages associated with the Lebanese Shiite group said six Hezbollah fighters were killed, listing their names and hometowns.

Qassem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor who works at a makeshift hospital in the Lebanese border town of Arsal, said they received the bodies of three people killed in Syria on Sunday as well as 15 wounded. Syrian rebels enjoy wide support in Arsal, which is predominantly Sunni — as are most opposition fighters.

"It was a very intense night," said a resident of the Lebanese city of Baalbek, which is close to the area of the fighting. The man, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his own safety, said Lebanese soldiers and policemen carried out security measures around Baalbek on Sunday night, setting up checkpoints, stopping cars and asking for people's identity cards.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah openly joined the Syrian conflict last year. The group's fighters have been instrumental to President Bashar Assad's success on the battlefield, tipping the balance of power in the 3-year-old conflict in the government's favour after ousting predominantly Sunni rebels from their strongholds along much of the Lebanese border and near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Syria's crisis, which began in March 2011, has killed more than 170,000 people, activists say.

Also Monday, the United Nations resumed its aid distribution to tens of thousands of besieged Syrians inside the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh.

Some 13 Syrian Red Crescent trucks loaded with 1,000 food parcels crossed into Moadamiyeh and will be distributed to 31,000 people under the supervision of the U.N., the Red Crescent and in co-ordination with the Syrian government.

A year's blockade on Moadamiyeh resulted in widespread hunger-related illness and death among its residents.

Since the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in late June, 2,460 food parcels have entered the besieged suburb said Hassan Ghandour, the general co-ordinator of the popular reconciliation in Syria.

U.N. resident co-ordinator in Damascus, Yacoub el-Helou, told reporters that the aid is the first within the framework of other consecutive operations to deliver aid to Moadamiyeh following negotiations with the Syrian government.

The move came hours before an expected Security Council vote on a U.N. resolution that would authorize cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrians in desperate need of food and medicine.

The final draft, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, would authorize U.N. agencies and aid organizations that assist them to use routes across conflict lines and four border crossings — two in Turkey, one in Iraq and one in Jordan — for 180 days in addition to those already in use to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

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Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut.

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