By Firas Makdesi
AL-SAHL, Syria, March 4 (Reuters) - Gunfire crackled and warplanes buzzed overhead as Syria's military fought on Tuesday to take a town that would help President Bashar al-Assad seal a link between his coastal bastions and Damascus.
Government fighters backed by the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and local paramilitaries bombarded the areas around Yabroud, the last major town held by mostly Sunni Muslim rebels near the Lebanese border.
Journalists were given a state-led tour of government-held areas around Yabroud on Tuesday including Al-Sahl, a town about 2 km (a mile) to Yabroud's north which the army took this week.
Buildings in the town appeared undamaged and electricity was running, but shops were closed and the streets empty except for Syrian soldiers who patrolled with assault rifles, many smiling and flashing V for victory signs.
Thousands of people fled Yabroud, a town of an estimated 40,000-50,000 people roughly 60 km (37 miles) north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the assault.
A Syrian military officer who asked that his name not be used told reporters that civilians were still leaving Yabroud, meaning fighting was still light. Some who "had problems" with the government chose to flee across the border to the Lebanese town of Arsal, he added.
Asked when the army might move to capture Yabroud, the officer declined to say. "The army determines the timing, and the operations are confidential, but it will be done with minimum losses and will protect private and public property."
Yabroud is also near the main highway linking Damascus to the former commercial hub Aleppo in the north and to the Mediterranean coast in the west, a stronghold of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
The government has been making incremental gains along the highway as well as around Damascus and Aleppo in recent months, casting doubt on how much mediators can achieve at Geneva peace talks between government and exile opposition representatives.
The second round of the talks ended last month with the sides still far from agreement.
Fighting in and around Yabroud killed dozens of people on Monday, including about 17 rebels, 15 government and allied militia fighters and at least four Hezbollah fighters, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another rebel was killed on Tuesday, it said.
A video posted on YouTube on Monday purported to show rebels standing over the body of a slain Hezbollah fighter.
The Shi'ite group, a major political and military force in neighbouring Lebanon, has been open about its aid to Assad, and has not hidden its role in the fight for Yabroud, with its television channel Al-Manar broadcasting live from the area.
Assad's Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, the sect of Iran, which backs both Assad and Hezbollah. Syria's rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni and receive support from Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
More than 140,000 people have been killed in the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule. What started three years ago as a peaceful protest movement soon descended into civil war backed by rival regional and global powers.
Tuesday's assault near Yabroud included helicopter bombardment using "barrel bombs" on the Rima area to the town's north, the Observatory said, referring to a crude explosive condemned by human rights campaigners as indiscriminate.
Asked about the sound of aircraft in the area, the Syrian military source said any strikes were being carried out against "specific, studied areas" where armed groups were present. (Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.