Syrian forces advance to edge of rebel border town

by Reuters
Tuesday, 11 March 2014 16:59 GMT

A tank belonging to the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen at Al-Sahl town, about 2km (a mile) to Yabroud's north, after the soldiers took control of it from the rebel fighters, in this March 3, 2014 handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

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Yabroud is the last major rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border north of Damascus

BEIRUT, March 11 (Reuters) - Syrian soldiers backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants took full control on Tuesday of farmland on the northern edge of Yabroud, the last major rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border north of Damascus, military sources said.

The sources, who were in contact with fighters on the ground, said the Syrian army killed dozens of rebel fighters as they took over the Rima Farms district outside the town.

"The army is now directly facing Yabroud," one of the sources told Reuters.

Capturing Yabroud would help President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route linking his Mediterranean coastal stronghold with the capital Damascus, and choke off a cross-border rebel supply line from Lebanon.

Thousands of people fled Yabroud, a town of an estimated 40,000-50,000 people roughly 60 km (40 miles) north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the assault.

Earlier on Tuesday the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group based in Britain, said Syrian aircraft dropped barrel bombs on Rima Farms and districts in Yabroud, but said there was no information on casualties.

Across the border in Lebanon, security sources said one person was wounded when four rockets were fired from Syrian rebel-held territory towards the village of Nabi Sheet, an area which is believed to include Hezbollah weapon stores.

They said the rocket fire appeared to be a response to the fighting across the frontier in Yabroud.

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, regaining the initiative in Syria's conflict which enters its fourth year next week.

More than 140,000 people have been killed, 2.5 million have fled abroad as refugees and the country is fragmenting into separate government, rebel and Kurdish-controlled areas.

In the northeastern Kurdish city of Qamishli, three militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) detonated their suicide vests in a downtown hotel housing a local governing council led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Observatory said.

Seven civilians, including four women, were killed in the attack and more than 20 others were wounded, it said. A spokesman for PYD, the strongest political force in Kurdish Syria, confirmed the death toll to Reuters.

Employees of the local council told the Observatory that one of the suicide bombers was a woman.

Long oppressed by Damascus, Syrian Kurds have been largely left to their own devices by Syrian government forces fighting rebels elsewhere. That has drawn accusations that they have made a de facto alliance with Assad - a charge the Kurds deny.

The Kurds, who number around 2 million, have expanded their sway in the northeast, since the revolt against Assad began three years ago. They declared their provincial government in the northeast on Jan. 21. (Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Stephen Kalin in Beirut, and Isabel Coles in Arbil; Editing by Alison Williams)

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