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Syrian troops capture central villages

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BEIRUT — Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, pressed on with their offensive Friday in the country's opposition heartland, taking two small villages near a strategic town that was captured by the government this week.

Following Wednesday's capture of Qusair, President Bashar Assad's forces appear to have turned their sights to driving rebels from the country's densely populated heartland, including the cities of Homs and Aleppo.

Government forces faced little resistance Friday as they took control of the central villages of Salhiyeh and Masoudiyeh, activists and the state SANA news agency said.

The push brought Assad's troops and their Hezbollah allies to the edge of al-Buwaida village, where rebels who withdrew from Qusair took up positions and regrouped. On Thursday, the rebels also lost the nearby village of Dabaa.

Casualties from Friday's clashes were not immediately known but the past three weeks of fierce fighting have left dozens of rebels, troops and Hezbollah fighters dead.

Since joining the battle in Qusair in full force in April, the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group has helped tip the balance of power to Assad's side, enabling the regime to take most of the towns and villages near the border with Lebanon.

Syrian state TV reported on Friday that troops are chasing rebels in al-Buwaida.

To the north, the rebels attacked an air base and fired tank shells at its command building but failed to capture it, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Mannagh air base has been under rebel siege for months but Mohammed Said, an Aleppo-based activist, said the rebels have failed to advance their attack on the facility.

There were also sporadic clashes Friday in the southern Syrian region of Quneitra in the Golan Heights, the Observatory reported.

On Thursday, the rebels briefly seized control of a border crossing near the town of Quneitra along the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights but government troops re-captured it later in the day.

The clashes prompted the withdrawal of a major Austrian peacekeeping contingent that is part of a U.N. force that patrols the contested area and heightening fears in Israel that it could soon be dragged into the neighboring country's civil war.

Syria's conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 but morphed into a bloody civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the French president called on Friday for the release of two French journalists missing in Syria, saying their lives were at risk. Francois Hollande, who was in Tokyo on a state visit, told reporters that he could not reveal details about the two.

"Their lives are at risk, so I cannot say anything more," Holland said. "I want them released as soon as possible."

The French radio broadcaster Europe 1 said in a statement on its website that it was unable to get in touch with reporter Didier François and photographer Edouard Elias who had left the Turkish-Syrian border, heading for Aleppo. Europe 1 said it was keeping in touch with French authorities in an effort to gain more information.

Hollande said it is essential that media be able to travel throughout Syria to help keep the world informed about the worsening humanitarian situation in the country.