Heavy fighting raged around the strategic Syrian border town of Qusair and the capital Damascus on Monday and further reports surfaced of chemical weapons attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on rebel areas.
The Syrian military pounded eastern suburbs of Damascus with air strikes and artillery and loud explosions echoed around al-Nabak, 80 km (50 miles) north of the capital, where fighting has cut the highway running north to the central city of Homs, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group said.
Government offensives in recent weeks are widely seen as a campaign to strengthen Assad’s negotiating position before a proposed international peace conference sponsored by the United States and Russia and planned for next month.
Opposition activists said Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hizbullah fighters were pressing a sustained assault on Qusair, a town long used by insurgents as a way station for arms and other supplies from Lebanon.
For Assad, Qusair is a crucial link between Damascus and loyalist strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. Recapturing the town, in central Homs province, could also sever connections between rebel-held areas in the north and south of Syria.
Each side gave conflicting accounts of the fighting.
Hizbullah’s deepening involvement in Qusair has raised the prospect of renewed civil war in adjacent Lebanon, where two rockets hit the Shi’ite Muslim movement’s stronghold in south Beirut on Sunday and one was fired from south Lebanon towards Israel.
The rockets struck hours after Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah promised that his anti-Israel terrorists, fighting alongside Assad’s forces, would win whatever the cost.
A Lebanese security source said another 107mm rocket, which did not go off, had been aimed at Beirut airport. The launch sites were near Aitat, in the hills just south of the capital.
“Chemical Attack” Affects Dozens
The U.S.-Russian initiative so far appears only to have intensified the violence, especially around Qusair and Damascus.
In Harasta, an eastern Damascus suburb largely under rebel control, dozens of people were afflicted by respiratory difficulties after an apparent overnight chemical attack, according to opposition sources. Video showed victims lying on the floor of a room, breathing from oxygen masks.
The sides in the conflict, now in its third year, have accused each other of using chemical weapons. France’s Le Monde newspaper published first-hand accounts on Monday of apparent chemical attacks by Assad’s forces in April.
The newspaper said one of its photographers had suffered blurred vision and breathing problems for four days after an attack on April 13 on the Jobar front, in central Damascus.
Another video from Harasta overnight showed at least two fighters being put into a van, their eyes watering and struggling to breathe while medics put tubes into their throats.
It was not possible to verify the videos independently.
Syria, which is not a member of the anti-chemical weapons convention, is believed to have one of the world’s last remaining stockpiles of undeclared chemical arms.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Brussels there was “increasingly strong evidence of localized use of chemical weapons” in Syria and said Paris would consult its partners on what action ought to be taken.
In Brussels later on Monday, an EU foreign ministers meeting on whether to relax an EU embargo on arming the Syrian rebels ended without agreement, Austria’s foreign minister said.
Britain and France had pushed for a deal to deliver arms while Austria and several other EU capitals opposed this.
Other EU diplomats said more discussions would be held later in the evening. It was not initially clear whether a new attempt at finding a compromise would be made.
All EU sanctions on Syria could collapse unless the 27-nation bloc agrees on the fate of the arms embargo before it expires on Saturday.