DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters captured the last major town in Qalamoun near the border with Lebanon Wednesday after weeks of intense fighting, solidifying the regime’s hold on the strategic region.
The town of Rankous fell early Wednesday, depriving the rebels their last major base in the rugged area, Lebanese sources and the Syrian government said.
“Units of the Syrian army have now accomplished their operation in the Rankous area and restored security and stability after eliminating a large number of terrorists,” Syrian state TV said.
President Bashar Assad’s forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have been on the offensive in the Qalamoun region since November, when they captured most of the border area with Lebanon. The six-month battle forced tens of thousands of Syrians to flee to safety in Lebanon.
The capture of Rankous and other towns and villages has cut a major rebel supply route for weapons and fighters into the country from eastern Lebanon.
Syrian TV aired live footage from inside Rankous Wednesday saying that the operation to capture the town lasted 18 hours.
Much of the homes appeared intact in the town’s center overlooked by a mosque with a green dome on top of a hill over the area.
“Rankous returns to the nation and is under the control of the Syrian Arab Army,” a TV announcer said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported that troops and Hezbollah fighters were in full control of the town.
The anti-Assad Qalamoun Media Center reported that 10 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the battle for Rankous. The group also said fighting was ongoing in a nearby area known as Rankous Farms.
Last month, the regime dealt a major blow to the opposition by seizing its last key bastion in the region, the town of Yabroud.
The rebels still control a few smaller villages in Qalamoun, but have seen their supply lines across the border with Lebanon largely severed.
Several hours after the overrunning of Rankous two car bombs exploded in a government-held district of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100.
The blasts hit a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of Assad’s Alawite sect in the central city, where government forces have been imposing a heavy siege on rebel-controlled districts.
SANA said one car blew up near a sweets shop in a busy street and about half an hour later another car exploded about 100 meters away “in order to inflict the biggest numbers of casualties among citizens.”
SANA reported that the wounded included its photographer in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, adding that the blasts went off in the Karm al-Loz neighborhood.
The agency said the explosion that struck a busy street also wounded 107 people. It said the dead and wounded in the explosions included women and children.
Syrian TV showed several shops and cars on fire. Videos posted online by activists showed destroyed shopfronts and people panicking and running in all directions as rescuers struggled to extinguish a fire.
“As ambulances and fire engines were working in the first site, the second blast went off, increasing the number of casualties,” a witness in the city told the Associated Press. The man, who asked that his name not be given for fear of reprisals, said he counted eight bodies of people killed in the second blast.
The Observatory said the blasts killed 21 people including children. It added that the number “is expected to rise” because some of the wounded are in critical conditions.
The Observatory said the dead might have included some pro-government gunmen.
Homs, a city of about 1 million, has shown great sympathy for the opposition since the early days of the uprising. The city was once known as “the capital of the Syrian revolution” before government forces captured large parts of once rebel-held neighborhoods such as Bab Amr and Khaldieh.
On March 27, a blast occurred in an Alawite neighborhood in the city, killing and wounding dozens of people.