Up to 30 Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria

Members of Lebanese militant group killed while fighting alongside government forces

About 30 fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah and 20 Syrian soldiers and militiamen loyal to president Bashar al-Assad have been killed in heavy fighting with rebels in the town of Qusair, Syrian activists said today.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army had “restored security and stability to most Qusair neighbourhoods” during the offensive in the town, about 10km from the Lebanese border.

Syrian troops pushed into the rebel-held townyesterday, fighting house-to-house and bombing from the air. The offensive came as Dr Assad tried to strengthen his grip on a strategic strip of land running from the capital to the Mediterranean coast.

World powers will make a major new push in the coming days for negotiations to end Syria’s civil war.

Dr Assad poured scorn on new plans for peace talks announced unexpectedly by the United States and Russia two weeks ago and planned for Geneva in early June.

His remarks were the latest indication that the warring parties are cold to the superpowers’ invitation, although opposition figures suggest that they are likely to agree to attend the talks anyway to isolate Dr Assad.

US secretary of state John Kerry is expected to explain the plans for talks at a meeting in Jordan on Wednesday of the “Friends of Syria” club of countries seeking Dr Assad’s downfall, many of which are sceptical of the peace initiative.

Syria’s opposition will meet on Thursday in Istanbul to announce its stance, and the Arab League’s Syria committee will also meet on Thursday in Cairo at the request of leading Assad foe Qatar, possibly to endorse the opposition’s decision.

On Wednesday, Britain and possibly France will try to persuade a European Union summit to allow the bloc’s 27 member states to arm Syria’s rebels. The proposed peace conference would be the first attempt to form an international consensus on Syria in nearly a year, since another Geneva meeting ended with support for a “transitional government” but no agreement on what that means.

A war that has killed more than 80,000 people and driven millions from their homes is only growing worse. Reports of atrocities on both sides, the rise of an al-Qaeda faction among Dr Assad’s foes, allegations that chemical arms have been used and air strikes by Israel have contributed to pressure on diplomats to achieve something at last.

Despite agreeing to call the conference, Washington and Moscow remain divided. The United States criticised Russia over the weekend for providing missiles to

Dr Assad. Russia insists Dr Assad’s main regional backer, Iran, must attend. France said it would oppose the conference unless Tehran was kept away. Among the warring parties themselves, the Syrian opposition has yet to budge on its refusal to negotiate unless Dr Assad is excluded from power, although it will be under pressure from Washington not to snub the invitation to talks.

Dr Assad, who says the fighters against him are terrorists and agents of foreign powers, dismissed the prospect of a peace settlement in an interview with Argentinian newspaper Clarin. “They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic,” he said. “There is confusion in the world between a political solution and terrorism.” He added: “No dialogue with terrorists.”