Gaziantep, TURKEY // Assad regime troops backed by Hizbollah fighters claimed to be close to victory last night in the battle for the strategic rebel-held town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border.
"Our heroic forces are advancing toward Qusayr and are chasing the remnants of the terrorists and have hoisted the Syrian flag on the municipality building; in the next few hours we will give you joyous news," state television said.
But local opposition activist Hadi Abdullah said the municipality had been destroyed in fighting six months ago and there was no government building left to take over.
Qusayr has been besieged for months, but government troops, pro-regime militia units and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah have slowly taken control of surrounding villages in recent weeks.
Mr Abdullah said heavy shelling began late on Saturday and continued throughout yesterday, and that civilians had sought shelter in basements.
At least 32 people, including rebel fighters, were killed during heavy shelling and air strikes, with regime armoured units and infantry pushing into the area, opposition groups monitoring the situation there said.
Lebanese media reported the bodies of up to eight Hizbollah fighters being taken across the border, 10 kilometres to the west of Qusayr. There was no official confirmation of those deaths by the group, which has accused its enemies of exaggerating its combat losses in Syria.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, confirmed last month that his forces were fighting alongside those of Bashar Al Assad, in areas near the Lebanese border and in Damascus.
Battle-hardened Hizbollah guerrillas seem to have played a decisive role in recent gains by government troops. Parts of Qusayr have been in rebel hands for more than a year, defying previous efforts by the regime to take them back.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles casualty reports from a network of activists on the ground, said Hizbollah fighters were "playing a central role" in the battle.
"Soldiers and tanks are trying to advance into the town, the rebel forces are attempting to push them back," he said.
The Syrian government has made much of recent advances around Qusayr, presenting the struggle there as something of a litmus test, in stark contrast to its downplaying of losses in oil-rich eastern Syria, where rebels have taken command of large swaths of territory.
Although there is little reason to believe the fall of Qusayr to government forces will mark a decisive turning point in the war, its significance reflects the growing sectarian and regionalised nature of the conflict in Syria.
Qusayr has assumed greater importance than other similarly sized towns that have been fought over by rebels and regime. It is located on the path that connects Damascus, Lebanon's Bekaa valley - a stronghold of Hizbollah - and the heartlands to the north of Syria's Alawites, a minority Shiite sect from which the country's ruling elite has been drawn for four decades.
The Syrian regime and its backers in Iran and Hizbollah - their fates linked - can ill afford to have that connection severed. Analysts have also pointed to signs, including cases of bloody sectarian murders, that Mr Al Assad and his supporters are paving the way for a de facto Alawite state on Syria's Mediterranean coast, cleansed of Sunnis, as a fallback position should the tide of war turn conclusively against them.
Syria's uprising cannot be reduced to mere sectarianism but Sunni-Shiite rivalries have increasingly come to the fore as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that began the revolt have given way to a vicious civil war, fuelled by competing foreign interests and international rivalries.
Hizbollah and Iran have been key backers of Mr Al Assad's regime in the face of a popular uprising, while Sunni militants, bankrolled by Sunni Arab benefactors, chiefly in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have come to play an increasingly dominate role for the opposition.
Rebels seized control of four deserted Alawite villages in Hama province yesterday, the Observatory reported.
"Late on Friday night, the rebels took complete control of Tlaissiyeh, Zoghbe, Shaata and Balil, after the withdrawal of the army following several weeks of fighting," it said. Residents abandoned the villages before the rebels took over.
An international peace conference between the Syrian regime and opposition, mediated by the United States and Russia - two other key players supporting opposing sides in the Syrian war - has been called in an effort to defuse the conflict.
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has said he hopes the conference, widely dubbed Geneva 2, will take place next month. Its chances of success appear as forlorn as those of the first Geneva summit almost a year ago.
That UN-brokered deal, the "Geneva communique", did nothing to halt spiralling violence or bring about a political transition in Syria. When it was struck, the death toll stood at around 20,000. Now more than 94,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to figures collected by the Observatory.
In an interview published in an Argentine newspaper on Saturday, Mr Al Assad said he would not negotiate with "terrorists" - his term for rebels opposed to his rule - apparently ruling out taking part in new talks.
"There is confusion in the world between a political solution and terrorism. They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic," he said.
Although Mr Al Assad has never contested an open presidential ballot, he insists he has been elected by the Syrian people, retains a popular mandate and refuses to consider standing down before his seven-year term ends in 2014.
Arab league ministers announced they would hold an emergency committee meeting on Thursday, to discuss the Geneva 2 talks. The Arab League, like the UN, has proven ineffectual in efforts to solve the Syrian crisis.
Also beginning on Thursday, the Syrian National Coalition will hold a general assembly in Istanbul, at which it is expected to decide it if is willing to take part in the proposed peace conference with Mr Al Assad's government.
On Wednesday, the Friends of Syria - international backers of the opposition - will gather in Jordan, also to discuss the Geneva 2 proposal.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse