World Bulletin/News Desk
Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah militants took full control of the town of Yabroud on Sunday after driving out rebels, helping President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route linking the capital Damascus to Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast.
The fall of Yabroud, the last rebel bastion near the Lebanese border, could choke off a vital insurgent supply line from Lebanon and consolidate government control over a swathe of territory from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
A military source told Reuters about 1,000 militants from the Nusra Front had held out on Saturday to fight government forces which had entered eastern districts of Yabroud and captured several hilltops.
"They fought a fierce battle and then from last night until the early hours of today they all pulled out," he said.
Hezbollah-operated Al Manar television broadcast scenes from Yabroud's main square where people walked around and talked in apparent safety. Soldiers replaced the three-star flag of the Syrian revolution with the government's two-star banner.
Footage from earlier in the day showed empty streets, shuttered shops and abandoned homes in a main thoroughfare. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah, who supported the Syrian army and pro-government fighters in sealing off the frontier area with Lebanon, were now in control of large parts of Yabroud.
The army had dismantled a large number of explosive devices planted by the rebels, state TV said.
Thousands of civilians fled Yabroud, a town of about 40,000 to 50,000 people roughly 60 km (40 miles) north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the government offensive.
The government has been making incremental gains along the land route and around Damascus and Aleppo in the past months, regaining the initiative in the three-year uprising-turned-civil war which has killed more than 140,000 people.
BATTLE TO CLOSE THE CROSSINGS
"In the next few days, the battle will be over closing these remaining crossings," the source said.
Al Manar said air raids had destroyed several trucks carrying fleeing militants near Arsal.
Sectarian tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims have already been heightened by the war in Syria, causing insecurity and political gridlock.
"We in Arsal are not ready to accept militants. Even if we support the revolution, the militants' battle is in Syria, not in Lebanon. Arsal will not be the place from which war is sparked inside Lebanon," he said.
A Nusra Front fighter in Yabroud denied that the rebels had planned to withdraw to Arsal.
94 killed in alleged regime attacks
Meanwhile, at least 94 people, including 17 children and six women, were killed in air and ground operations mounted by President Bashar al-Assad's regime forces across Syria on Saturday, opposition activists say.
The London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) watchdog said that 31 people were killed in the suburbs of Damascus, 25 in Idlib, 18 in Homs, 15 in Aleppo, three in Hama and two in Deraa.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) reported that regime army helicopters dropped several barrel bombs in Aleppo, where many buildings were either damaged or demolished.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 16 Mart 2014, 14:21