RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. There is a potentially key battle going on in Syria right now. It's the fight centered on the strategic town of Qusair. Syria's government appears to be making gains against rebel forces who now mostly control the city of Qusair.
That progress by the government comes as the militant group Hezbollah from neighboring Lebanon is sending fighters across the border to bolster troops loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad. We're going to get two perspectives on the battle. In a moment, we'll hear from NPR's Kelly McEvers. But first, we go to our own Steve Inskeep, reporting this week from Syria.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The provincial governor told us this week Syria's army largely retook Qusair, though a battle continued for the airport. We asked to see for ourselves. So the governor appointed two men to lead us to the city, and the drive proved to be revealing.
Something's burning up there.
Miles before Qusair, we saw towers of smoke in the air.
There's a whole a series of fires across that lake - one, two three, four, maybe five.
From across that lake, we made out Qusair's airfield, the scene of heavy fighting this week. It should have been a short drive to Qusair, but we took a roundabout route. Our guides explained this was for security. The guides were members of Syria's Alawite religious group.
President Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, and depends on that group for his firmest support. The guides were taking us from one Alawite village to another, fearing violence if they drove through villages of the majority Sunni Muslims, many of whom support the rebellion.
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INSKEEP: As we drew closer, we heard the thud of Syrian artillery, pounding Qusair. We also heard fighter jets overhead, and occasionally heard small arms fire.
We're hearing gunshots rather close now in this town, but also seeing children sitting casually by the street.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
INSKEEP: We were finally stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint, who said we could not enter Qusair after all. They contended rebel snipers were on the road ahead. Through an interpreter, we asked to meet the highest-ranking officer in the area.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Actually, we are the highest...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...here.
INSKEEP: Unable to get closer, we knocked on the door of a nearby house, and residents let us climb on the roof. From there, we had a panoramic view of the landscape, and it did not look like Qusair was entirely under control.
Yeah, we see smoke rising up from the city of Qusair from this rooftop, suggesting the fighting is still going on there.
And rebels have said they're still fighting in the city, though spokesmen for both sides say the Syrian army has captured most of the region.
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INSKEEP: In this battle, the government has supplemented its heavy weapons with help from outside. Fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah joined the battle. We are near the border with Lebanon. It's a sensitive topic here to discuss Hezbollah's involvement in the war. The government has insisted it's the rebels, not them, who rely on foreigners. But Hezbollah's involvement has become more open in recent days, and Qusair is especially well-placed for the Lebanese militia to play a role.
MONTAGNE: And that's MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep, of course, outside Qusair, Syria.