DAMASCUS/YABROUD, Syria: Army troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized a key rebel supply town near the Lebanese border Sunday, driving them from the area and scoring a major blow against them in the 3-year-old conflict.
The fall of Yabroud immediately emboldened government forces to attack nearby rebel-held towns, pressing forward in what has been nearly a yearlong advance against rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon, and overlooks an important highway from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
Syria’s state television reported that military forces were removing booby traps and bombs and hunting down rebel holdouts in Yabroud.
“Our armed forces are now chasing the remnants of the terrorist gangs in the area,” said a uniformed soldier reading a statement on Syrian television. “This new achievement ... cuts supply lines and tightens the noose around terrorist strongholds remaining in the Damascus countryside,” the soldier said.
Gunfire and clashes could be heard on footage broadcast live by the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah station Al-Manar. It showed troops walking through empty streets.
While scores of soldiers and fighters wearing different kinds of uniforms could be seen in Yabroud, no civilians were spotted anywhere.
A black flag used by Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, still flapped from a building near what appeared to be an abandoned army post painted in the colors of the “rebel,” or independence-era flag.
Syrian soldiers sat in the streets after seizing the town in fierce clashes with the support of battle-hardened fighters from Lebanon’s 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 Mohammad told AFP in Yabroud’s central square between puffs from a traditional water pipe.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Hezbollah had led the operation. The Observatory and sources across the border in Lebanon reported multiple air raids, including with explosive-packed barrel bombs, on the area between Yabroud 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 TV said the army was targeting “groups of terrorists” fleeing Yabroud in the direction of Arsal.
According to Abu Akram, a Syrian army soldier in Yabroud, the military now aims to take over Flita and Rankous, two rebel-held villages on the road to Lebanon. The fall of Yabroud was preceded by the movement of groups of rebels toward Rankous.
“It underlines yet again 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 Yabroud was yet another testament of division among rebels and their jihadist allies in the Nusra Front.
According to a Nusra fighter in Yabroud, most rebels made a surprise withdrawal from the town, while the jihadists stayed on and fought alone through early Sunday.
Anti-regime activists said rebels aimed to drag Syrian army troops into street-to-street fighting, where they believed they had an advantage.
A spokesman of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition of Islamist militias, said fighters fled the hills that overlook Yabroud before army troops entered. Capt. Islam Alloush said other rebels later fled the town overnight, collapsing the ranks of fighters.
“There’s no doubt Yabroud had big strategic importance,” Alloush said. “This will make it easier for the regime to occupy other nearby villages.”
He said the biggest immediate loss would be that rebels now had no way of supplying ranks in rural Damascus where Syrian forces have surrounded a series of opposition-held areas, denying them food, power and clean water.
Yabroud’s fall comes a day after the third anniversary of Syria’s conflict, which has killed more than 146,000 people.
The U.N. refugee agency says 9 million Syrians have been forced from their homes, creating the world’s largest displaced population.