BEIRUT: Syrian troops backed by fighters from Hezbollah launched an assault Sunday to oust rebels from the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital, state television said.
Regime forces took parts of the strategic Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon in April, but some 2,000 rebel fighters withdrew to the hills, from where they have launched guerrilla attacks.
Fourteen fighters from Hezbollah have been killed in the area over the past two weeks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Syria's state broadcaster showed footage of the troops, saying they had taken "some hills overlooking the Rankous plain and are pursuing terrorist groups who tried to infiltrate the region from Lebanon."
An interviewed by the channel said "the army has cut the route off to terrorist groups who try to return to the region from time to time. The operation is continuing until the whole of the Qalamoun area has been cleansed.
"This land will be a cemetery for all terrorists who decide to return."
President Bashar Assad's regime refers to the armed opposition inside the country as "terrorists," without distinguishing between different groups.
Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said that "rebels hiding in the heights and in caves have been attacking army and Hezbollah positions for weeks after being pushed out of the region, which also prompted regime forces to withdraw."
He said the rebels had launched a counterattack "and succeeded in retaking their positions and expanding their presence."
On Saturday, a Lebanese security source told The Daily Star that the Syrian regime, backed by Hezbollah, had taken control of the Syrian territory surrounding the Lebanese village of Tfail.
Tfail is located east of Brital on a promontory of Lebanese territory surrounded on three sides by Syria’s Qalamoun region and has almost been completely isolated as a result of the conflict in the neighboring country.
Some 70 rebel fighters surrendered to the Syrian army and handed over their arms, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Syrian fighters who were in Tfail along with their families were allowed to return to Syria, the source said.
Dozens of Lebanese families have abandoned the village in recent days, fleeing clashes between the Syrian army and rebel forces. - With The Daily Star