World / Middle East

Syrian forces capture rebel stronghold near Lebanese border

By Agencies in Beirut and Damascus (China Daily) Updated: 2014-03-17 07:56

Syrian forces capture rebel stronghold near Lebanese border

Syrians supporting the government celebrate in Damascus on Sunday after the Syrian army seized full control of the rebel town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border. Joseph Eid / Agence France-Presse

Government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters took full control of the Syrian town of Yabroud on Sunday after driving out rebel fighters, according to Syrian state media.

The victory helps President Bashar al-Assad to secure the land route linking the capital Damascus to the former commercial hub of Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast.

The fall of Yabroud, the last rebel bastion near the Lebanese border, would also choke off a vital insurgent supply line from Lebanon and consolidate government control over a swath of territory from Damascus to the central city of Homs. State television SANA said government forces had won "complete control" over the town, killing or capturing many rebels.

A military source said most of the rebels had pulled out of Yabroud around dawn, a day after government forces entered its eastern districts and captured several hilltops.

Troops had dismantled a large number of explosive devices planted by the rebels, SANA said.

A fighter in Yabroud from the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's official affiliate in Syria, confirmed to Reuters the rebels had decided to pull out. They were heading toward nearby villages, including Hosh Arab, Rankos and Fleita, he said.

Key strategic prize

Kasem Alzein, a Syrian pro-rebel doctor who lives in the nearby border town of Arsal, said military forces entered the eastern part of Yabroud and that rebels fled to the nearby town of Flita. He said a small hard core group of fighters had decided to fight to the death in the city.

"They don't want to surrender," he said.

But, he said, "supplies are cut off. The weapons that were promised (to rebels) never arrived."

Yabroud was once home to some 30,000 residents, around 90 percent Sunni Muslim and 10 percent Christian.

In addition to its symbolic importance, the town is a key strategic prize because of its proximity to the highway and the Lebanese border, across which rebels have smuggled fighters and weapons.

The capture of the town, and continuing army operations in the surrounding area, will sever important supply lines for the rebels as they face several army advances on different fronts.

The town's seizure is also likely to place new pressure on Lebanon's Arsal, just across the border, which is hosting tens of thousands of refugees that have fled the Qalamun region.

Sunni Arsal is largely sympathetic to the Sunni-led uprising, and rebel fighters are believed to have bases in areas around the town.

The Syrian air force has regularly carried out air strikes, with warplanes and helicopters targeting rebel positions around Arsal.

Thousands of civilians fled Yabroud, a town of about 40,000 to 50,000 people roughly 60 km north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the government offensive.

Scenes broadcast by Al Mayadeen television from a main thoroughfare inside Yabroud showed empty streets, shuttered shops and abandoned homes.

Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background, which a reporter said came from a nearby area where government forces were clashing with rebel holdouts.

An anti-Assad monitoring group said government shelling of some districts overnight accompanied fighting between pro-government forces and rebel factions, including the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida splinter group.

The government has been making incremental gains along the land route as well as around Damascus and Aleppo in the past months, regaining the initiative in a conflict entering its fourth year.

More than 140,000 people have been killed in the increasingly sectarian civil war, which began with mass street protests against Assad but turned into an armed insurgency after a crackdown on demonstrators.


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