DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops gained ground Monday in a nine-day offensive against a key rebel-held town, and a Syrian TV correspondent covering the fighting there was killed by gunfire, state media and a pro-opposition group reported.
The fighting raged as European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels to try to bridge divisions over easing an arms embargo, a step that would allow weapons shipments to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchanged updates on their efforts to launch Syrian peace talks at an international conference in Geneva next month.
The Assad regime has said it is willing to attend the talks in principle, while Syria's fractured political opposition is still holding internal discussions about it.
There is little evidence that either side is ready to halt the violence that has killed more than 70,000 people since March 2011.
In Syria, heavy fighting was reported Monday in the western town of Qusair, the target of a regime offensive that began May 19, and around the nearby Dabaa military base.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said regime troops and allied fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah captured the nearby town of Hamidiyeh, tightening their siege of Qusair. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said troops were trying to capture the village of Haret al-Turkumen in order to put Qusair under "complete siege."
Syrian state TV said troops captured more parts of the northern and central rebel-held neighborhoods of Qusair. The town had been under rebel control almost from the start of the uprising against Assad in 2011.
Al-Mayadeen TV, which has several reporters embedded with Syrian troops, aired video from the town showing widespread destruction. At least three bodies could be seen on one of the streets.
In an incident apparently related to the fighting, a rocket struck the Lebanese town of Hermel, just across the border from Qusair. A 17-year-old girl was killed and a woman was wounded by the rocket, said a Lebanese security official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Observatory said that Hezbollah has lost 79 fighters in Syria in 10 days of fighting, all of them but four of them in the Qusair area.
The battle for Qusair has exposed Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian conflict. The Shiite militant group, which has been fighting alongside Assad's troops, initially tried to play down its involvement, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in the area and buried in large funerals in Lebanon.
On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah firmly linked his militant group's fate to the survival of the Syrian regime, raising the stakes not just in Syria, but also in Hezbollah's relations with rival groups in Lebanon.
Qusair's value lies in its location along a land corridor linking two of Assad's strongholds, the capital of Damascus and towns on the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. For the rebels, holding Qusair means protecting a supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
The Syrian reporter killed Monday, Yara Abbas, had been covering the fighting near Qusair.
Abbas, who worked for state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV, was attacked by rebels who ambushed the car carrying her and her crew near the Dabaa base close to Qusair, the Syrian Information Ministry said in a statement carried by state TV. A cameraman and his assistant were wounded, the report said.
Dozens of journalists have been killed, wounded or kidnapped since Syria's crisis began.
Amnesty International said this month that Syria's government and some rebels are deliberately targeting journalists.
In the central city of Homs, a car bomb exploded near a gas station, killing at least four people and wounding dozens, the Observatory said. Syria's state-run news agency SANA put the number of dead at six.
The EU debate on easing the arms embargo showed deep divisions among member states. Britain was the most outspoken proponent of relaxing the arms embargo but faced strong opposition from EU members like Austria who feel that pouring more weapons into the war zone will only make the Syria conflict deadlier.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday there were more indications than ever that gas warfare has become part of the Syrian civil war. France said it has been looking into such reports since early this month.
"(There are) are stronger and better substantiated indications of the local use of chemical arms. We have to check this and are doing this with our partners," Fabius said.
He did not specify which side was accused of using them.
Mroue reported from Beirut.