BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria attacks rebel holdouts in Qalamoun

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on March 17, 2014, shows Syrian pro-government forces and supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hoisting their national flag in the western town of Yabrud. (AFP PHOTO /SANA/ HO)

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces began an assault Monday on the last rebel-held areas in the Qalamoun mountains, strategically located on the Lebanese border, after overrunning a key opposition bastion.

The capture of the town of Yabroud Sunday by Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters came shortly after the conflict entered its fourth year and marked a significant setback for the rebels as it severs their supply lines from across the border.

The army began an offensive against remaining rebel enclaves in Qalamoun Monday evening, including shelling the village of Flita, a Hezbollah source said.

A security source in Damascus said the army would launch operations “in all areas where terrorists are to be found,” using the regime term for rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

“The aim of the army operation is to entirely secure the border and to close all corridors to Lebanon.”

Two Nusra fighters including one commander were killed in the Qalamoun region Monday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The anti-Assad group also said an army lieutenant commander was killed when his plane crashed landed on the approach to the Nasseriya military airport in Damascus, on route back from Qalamoun.

A source close to Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley said Yabroud’s victory came after a Hezbollah commando raid killed 13 rebel leaders, leaving their forces in disarray.

Among those killed, said the source, was Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, a key commander in the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate.

A spokesman for the Nusra Front blamed the fall of Yabroud on rebel-on-rebel clashes and rivalries.

“Yabroud did not fall. Yabroud was handed over to the [Syrian] regime and Hezbollah,” said the spokesman, Abdullah Azzam al-Shami in comments posted on a militant website Monday.

He said Nusra fighters in Yabroud were determined to hold the town but had to withdraw after rebels from other groups left their positions in the surrounding hills, opening the way for Assad’s troops to push in from the east.In violence elsewhere Monday, six people were killed and 20 wounded by a car bomb in a Homs district that is home to members of Assad’s Alawite sect, according to the Observatory. News agency SANA confirmed the report.

Fighting raged further north in Syria’s second city Aleppo between rebels and regime loyalists, as helicopters dropped a barrel bomb on an opposition area of the city, the Observatory said.

At least one man was killed by regime shelling, while clashes raged on the city’s front lines, the group said, adding that 11 troops were killed in Monday’s fighting.

The rebel Army of Mujahedeen meanwhile detained prominent female activist Marcell Shehwaro and her friend Mohammad Khalili in Aleppo after she refused to don the Islamic headscarf, according to local activists.

The pair were taken to the Islamic court for questioning, with activists saying they would protest at the court to demand their release.

In Damascus, a mortar bomb hit the central Umayyad square, killing one policeman, a security source told AFP. – Agencies,

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Syrian regime forces began an assault Monday on the last rebel-held areas in the Qalamoun mountains, strategically located on the Lebanese border, after overrunning a key opposition bastion.

The capture of the town of Yabroud Sunday by Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters came shortly after the conflict entered its fourth year and marked a significant setback for the rebels as it severs their supply lines from across the border.

The army began an offensive against remaining rebel enclaves in Qalamoun Monday evening, including shelling the village of Flita, a Hezbollah source said.

Two Nusra fighters including one commander were killed in the Qalamoun region Monday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


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