AARSAL, Lebanon — A Syrian government offensive near the Lebanese border is being described as the fiercest fighting in months by villagers fleeing the violence, with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad seizing control of villages that had been rebel strongholds.
The fighting near the city of Qusayr, which the rebels have controlled since last summer, has solidified the Orontes River as the dividing line between the country's warring sects, with pro-Assad Alawites holding the area on the western bank of the river and anti-Assad Sunni Muslims on the river's eastern bank.
In Damascus, Syria's prime minister survived a bomb attack that targeted his convoy Monday, state media reported, in the latest apparent assassination attempt against a top official in Assad's government.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi "is safe and he survived the explosion," said the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
Rebels fighting to oust Assad have regularly deployed car bombs and have been blamed for several such attacks in the capital, including a devastating explosion in February on a busy roadway in central Damascus that killed more than 50 people.
The bombings and assassinations are part of the wider violence wracking Syria as the nation's conflict enters its third year. The crisis began with largely peaceful antigovernment protests in March 2011 but has since morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.
While the rebels have wrested much of northern Syria from the regime in the past year, the government hold on Damascus is firm, and regime forces have been on the offensive recently in the capital's suburbs and in the countryside near the border with Lebanon. In the northwest, regime troops recently opened up a key supply road to soldiers fighting in the embattled city of Aleppo.
As the regime has sought to shore up its strategic position, it has come under allegations of using chemical weapons on at least two occasions dating back to December.
The United States said last week that intelligence indicates the Syrian military has likely used sarin, a deadly nerve agent, echoing similar assessments from Israel, France and Britain. Syria's rebels accuse the regime of firing chemical weapons on at least four occasions, while the government denies the charges and says opposition fighters have used chemical agents in a bid to frame it.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon reiterated his appeal to Syria to allow a team of experts into the country "without delay and without any conditions" to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use.
The Assad government has asked for a U.N. investigation but wants it to be limited to an incident near Aleppo in March. Ban has pushed for a broader investigation, including a December incident in the central city of Homs.
A U.N. team of experts has already begun gathering and analyzing available evidence, but Ban said onsite activities are essential if the U.N. is to establish the facts and "clear all the doubts."
The area around Qusayr has long been a battle zone, with both the government and the rebels considering it strategic to their goals. But residents who have arrived in Aarsal in recent days said they had been able to remain in their homes throughout the fighting until a week ago, when government shelling intensified and rebels withdrew.
Several residents reported that government shelling had leveled Nabi Mendo, a town northwest of Qusayr.
Residents said the participation in the offensive of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that has increasingly fought on the side of the Syrian government, was crucial to the government's recapture of the villages.
Rebels use the area to move people and supplies between Syria and supportive communities in Lebanon, and last year it served as an approach to gain a foothold in Homs, the country's third-largest city, which continues to see combat despite a nearly yearlong siege by the government against rebel-held neighborhoods in its center.
Essam Bleibel, the co-director of the Hermel municipality, denounced the rocket attacks. "Even if they are fighting the military wing of Hezbollah, they don't have the right to attack civilians," he said.
"The people are getting angrier and angrier. The situation can't stay like this," he said. "We are afraid the situation will develop into people taking revenge."
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.