In this Saturday, May 18, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Qusair Lens which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrians inspecting the rubble of damaged buildings due to government airstrikes, in Qusair, Homs province, Syria. (HOEP/AP)

Syrian government forces, backed by militants from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, are reported to have made significant advances into the rebel stronghold of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

The army launched a sustained assault on the small but strategic town Sunday morning, bombarding it with airstrikes and shelling. Syrian state television said 70 “terrorists” were killed, while activists said that at least 52 people, including three women, died. The Syrian government refers to rebel forces as “terrorists.”

In addition to the attack from the air, opposition groups have reported clashes between rebel forces and Syrian army units fighting alongside Hezbollah guerrillas at several points around the town, which sits six miles from the Lebanese border in Homs province.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition has warned that a “civilian massacre” may occur, and there have been reports of residents fleeing across the border to Lebanon.

The violence has spilled over the undefined border between the two countries, with Lebanon’s state news agency reporting that at least eight Grad rockets hit parts of the northeastern town of Hermel.

Fighting has been going on around Qusair for nearly six months, but it appears that the government has decided to make a major push to take the town from opposition forces.

Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general who teaches at the American University of Beirut, said that besides giving the government “a certain morale-
boosting value,” Qusair is also the link between the Syrian capital and Homs, as well as the Alawite coastal area. “If you want to control the country’s main highway, you have to have a secure area here,” Hanna said. President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect.

Qusair is strategically important for anti-government forces as well, giving them an access point to Lebanon and potential ­weapons-smuggling routes.

The timing of the assault may be significant. Peace talks brokered by the United States and Russia are to be held next month, but both the government and the opposition have refused to give any ground.

In a rare interview with Argentine newspaper Clarin, published Saturday, Assad said he would not step down and suggested that any peace talks should focus on stopping the flow of money and weapons to “terrorists.”

According to analysts, if the regime wins a decisive victory in Qusair, it may have the upper hand at the negotiating table.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition has condemned the attack on the town. “What the regime and Hezbollah have done in Qusair is not acceptable. How can we sit down with them while they kill our people?” said Salim al-Muslit, a member of the coalition, speaking on the phone from Turkey.

The opposition group has called on the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting on Syria, which the body has provisionally said will be held Thursday.

There also were reports of another military gain for Syrian forces Sunday, with serious clashes reported in Halfaya, a town near Hama, about 25 miles north of Homs. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain, the army stormed the town, setting fire to houses along the way and forcing rebel fighters to retreat.