YABRUD, Syria: Syria's army and Lebanon's Hezbollah seized full control of the rebel bastion Yabrud on Sunday, dealing the opposition a heavy symbolic and strategic blow in the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border.
An AFP reporter entered the town after the army declared it had captured the opposition stronghold north of the capital.
Syrian soldiers sat in the streets after seizing the town in fierce clashes with the support of battle-hardened fighters from Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah and pro-regime militiamen.
"It was a very difficult battle, possibly the most difficult we have faced," a soldier who identified himself as Abu Mohammed told AFP in Yabrud's central square between puffs from a traditional water-pipe.
Earlier, the army announced it had "returned security and stability" to the town and its surroundings.
"This new success... is an important step towards securing the border area with Lebanon, and cutting off the roads and tightening the noose around the remaining terrorist cells in Damascus province," the military added.
While scores of soldiers and fighters wearing different kinds of uniforms could be seen in Yabrud, not one civilian could be spotted anywhere.
Graffiti in the colours of the pro-revolt flag still adorned the heavily damaged town's walls, while a fighter jet could be heard overhead.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group relying on a network of contacts inside Syria, said Hezbollah had led the operation and "taken control of large parts of Yabrud."
The Observatory and sources across the border in Lebanon reported multiple air raids, including with explosive-packed barrel bombs, on the area between Yabrud and the Lebanese town of Arsal.
The NGO said at least six people were killed in raids on the area, among them two children.
Syrian state television said the army was targeting "groups of terrorists" fleeing Yabrud in the direction of Arsal.
The fall of Yabrud comes after months of Syrian army operations in the Qalamoun region.
Late last year, the army captured a string of nearby towns before turning its sights to Yabrud.
The town was once home to some 30,000 people, including a Christian minority, and had been a rebel bastion since early in the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011.
According to Abu Akram, a Syrian army soldier in Yabrud, the military now aims to take over Flita and Rankus, two rebel positions on the road to Lebanon.
In addition to its symbolic importance, Yabrud is a key strategic prize because of its proximity to the highway and the Lebanese border, across which rebels have smuggled fighters and weapons.
The capture of the town, and continuing army operations in the surrounding area, will sever important supply lines for the rebels as they face several army advances on different fronts.
"It underlines yet again that the real momentum in the strategic zones of this conflict is now with the government," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The fall of Yabrud was yet another testament of division among rebels and their jihadist allies in Al-Nusra Front.
According to an Al-Nusra fighter in Yabrud, most rebels made a surprise withdrawal from the town, while the jihadists stayed on and fought alone through early Sunday.
The town's seizure could also place new pressure on Lebanon's Arsal, which is hosting at least 51,000 Syrian refugees, many from the Qalamoun region.
Sunni Arsal is largely sympathetic to the Sunni-led uprising, and rebel fighters are believed to have rear bases in areas around the town, which are regularly targeted by Syrian warplanes.
Lebanon's army on Sunday arrested "a group of Syrian men who had weapons and ammunition in their possession," said the official National News Agency.
Arsal municipality official Ahmad Fliti, meanwhile, told AFP the Syrian air force was staging continuous raids outside the town on Sunday.
Hezbollah's involvement in Syria has prompted bomb attacks by extremist groups against areas in Lebanon sympathetic to the movement, killing mostly civilians.
The group and Lebanese security forces have said many of the car bombs used in those attacks originated in Yabrud.
The town's fall comes a day after the third anniversary of Syria's conflict, which has killed more than 146,000 people.
The UN refugee agency says nine million Syrians have been forced from their homes, creating the world's largest displaced population.