BEIRUT: Syrian warplanes pounded the rebel-held town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border Wednesday, the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s mountainous Qalamoun region.
Backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive there since early December in a campaign to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border region and fortify the president’s hold on central Syria, from the capital Damascus to his stronghold on the coast.
Opposition activists reported heavy fighting in the area between troops loyal to Assad and rebels trying to overthrow him. The opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes had carried out 10 airstrikes Wednesday.
Pro-government media said the army seized the nearby village Jraijir, while the Observatory said Assad’s forces had advanced on the area but had not completely taken it.
“The attacks were sharply intensified, but it is unclear if the offensive on Yabroud has started or if this is paving the way for a main attack,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
Lebanon’s Mayadeen TV and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the Syrian army had started “a wide-scale military operation in Yabroud.”
Mayadeen said Assad’s forces were positioning themselves on hilltops outside Yabroud in preparation for attack.
Syria’s state-run news agency said troops took control of Jraijir and surrounding hills on the Syrian side of the border in the early afternoon.
A spokesman for the rebel unit Al-Ghuraba Brigade at Yabroud also said Hezbollah fighters and Assad forces were trying to position themselves on nearby hilltops to attack the town.
“They are gathering their forces with the hope of taking the border road,” spokesman Abu Anas said. “Right now no one is moving in Yabroud. The rebels are blocking the offensive. The hospital is filling up with wounded.”
Assad’s forces had, he said, sent envoys in the days leading up to the attack to try to convince leading citizens in nearby towns to accept a truce. Some villages accepted, but most towns, like Yabroud, refused, Abu Anas said.
“The battle for Qalamoun was supposed to just be a propaganda campaign,” he said. “But the regime got itself in a mess: The army sent people to convince us there could be a peaceful solution if we raised the government flag and took photos. Instead, we refused.”
Rebels said they shot down an turn to page 10from page 1aircraft in the fighting Wednesday, but there were no videos yet to verify the reports.In Lebanon, preparations were underway to receive more Syrians fleeing the area.
An Associated Press reporter in the border town of Arsal saw several trucks and buses packed with people, clothes and other belongings rolling into Lebanon.
A senior official with the town’s administration said that up to 300 Syrians had crossed into Lebanon over the past 48 hours. He spoke on condition that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Lebanese media said at least one body and 22 wounded around Yabroud were transported to hospitals in Lebanon.
Yabroud has been controlled by the opposition for much of Syria’s nearly three-year conflict. Lebanese Sunnis have moved through the town to join Syrian rebels in battles against Assad’s forces, bringing in weapons and supplies for opposition fighters from across the border in Arsal.
In June, the group helped Assad’s forces regain control of the town of Qusair. Its fall tipped the balance of power in the Syrian conflict in Assad’s favor, though Hezbollah’s public involvement in the civil war has deepened sectarian tensions in Lebanon.