Syria said on Sunday its military has seized a key town on the Lebanese border that was the target of a months-long army offensive. Activists said fighting was still ongoing but the government was in effective control of much of Yabroud.
Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into neighboring Lebanon, and overlooked an important cross-country highway. Its fall, coming as the Syrian conflict enters fourth year, would be the latest blow to rebels since the initiative passed to the government in the spring of 2013.
It is the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been waging an offensive for months to try to sever rebel supply lines across the porous border into eastern Lebanon. Its fall would come just a week after the Syrian army seized the village of Zara, which also served as a conduit for rebels from mountainous northern Lebanon into central Syria.
Syria’s state news agency SANA reported that military forces seized Yabroud early on Sunday and were now combing the city, removing booby-traps and bombs and hunting down rebel hold-outs.
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 hardcore group of fighters had decided to fight to the death in the city.
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“They don’t want to surrender,” he said.
But, he said, “supplies are cut off. The weapons that were promised (to rebels) never arrived.”
“Qusair will repeat itself,” Alzein said, referring to another strategic rebel-held town on the Syrian border that fell last summer. As in the Qalamoun offensive, Lebanese Hezbollah militants played a key role backing government troops.
Gunfire and clashes could be heard on footage broadcast live by the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen. It showed troops walking through empty streets.
Meanwhile, a new flare-up of violence in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli linked to the Syrian civil war left 12 people dead in recent days, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said.
NNA says the latest fatality was a soldier, killed when attackers fired on his armored vehicle with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms on Sunday.
His death brings the death toll to 12 since clashes erupted Thursday, the NNA said.
The clashes pit Sunni gunmen from the neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh who back Syria’s Sunni-majority rebels against rivals from nearby Jabal Mohsen, dominated by the Alawite sect, also the faith of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Some Sunni gunmen have also attacked Lebanese soldiers, accusing them of loyalty to rival sectarian factions in Lebanon.