BEIRUT: Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters Tuesday took full control of farmland on the northern edge of Yabroud, military sources and anti-regime activists 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 said.
Capturing Yabroud, the last major rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border north of Damascus, would help President Bashar Assad secure the land route linking his Mediterranean coastal stronghold with the capital, and choke off a rebel supply line from Lebanon.
Thousands fled Yabroud, a town of an estimated 40,000-50,000 people roughly 60 km north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the assault.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three rebel fighters died in the clashes, while state media said that dozens of rebels were killed.
The pro-opposition Qalamoun Media Center, which gave a figure of 11 rebel deaths, said 20 airstrikes targeted Yabroud and surrounding areas while six barrel bombs were dropped by helicopter on the town.
Activists posted photographs purporting to show massive devastation in neighborhoods of Yabroud. The center said the rebels disabled a regime tank and downed a regime aircraft, but the claim could not be confirmed.
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 and the country is fragmenting into separate government, rebel and Kurdish-controlled areas.
Fierce fighting also raged in Morek in Hama province, as the Observatory said rebels took full control of the village, which lies on the highway to Aleppo. Both sides suffered casualties in the clashes, it said.
In the northeastern Kurdish city of Qamishli, three militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) detonated suicide vests in a hotel housing a local governing council led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Observatory said.Eight civilians, including four women, were killed in the attack and more than 20 others were wounded, it added. 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 and that three other ISIS militants involved in the attack were arrested.
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 a provincial government in the northeast on Jan. 21.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said three people died in the attack on the Hadaya Hotel. It didn’t provide further details.
ISIS militants were also blamed for summarily executing at least 22 people, including 12 rebels, in the north of the country, the Observatory said.
“ISIS members executed at least 22 persons with firearms or knives, after taking control of Shuyukh outside the town of Jarablus” in Aleppo province, Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Observatory, told AFP.
Among those killed were “at least 12 armed rebels,” he said.
ISIS seized Jarablus, near the northern border with Turkey, from the rebels last month.
At the beginning of January, a number of rebel groups joined an offensive against ISIS, accusing it of atrocities against people from their own ranks and among civilians.
At least 3,300 persons have been killed in that fighting, according to the Observatory, which relies on activists and other sources inside Syria.
The Observatory said that in a rural area of Hassakeh province, ISIS engaged in an exchange of prisoners with the Nusra Front and Islamist militias, but did not give a number of those covered in the deal.
The Observatory said Monday’s nationwide death toll – 10 civilians and 72 fighters – was the one of the lowest in months, with the drop likely due to bad weather hampering government airstrikes.