DAMASCUS: The Syrian army has taken control of several hills southwest of the former rebel stronghold of Yabroud as it seeks to secure territory between the city and the Lebanese border, a security source said Tuesday.
Two days after it seized Yabroud following a month of shelling and air strikes, backed by fighters from Hezbollah and local militias, it is now moving to secure the area along the nearby border with Lebanon, which has been a key supply route for the opposition, allowing them to transport fighters and weapons.
The source in Damascus told AFP that the army was focusing on a string of villages in the mountainous Qalamoun region – Ras al-Ain, Rankous, Flita and Ras al-Maara – while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Hezbollah fighters and army troops had entered parts of Ras al-Ain after fierce clashes with rebel groups.
North of Yabroud, rebels fought with army troops, paramilitaries and Hezbollah fighters on the outskirts of Nasirieh, disabling a tank and causing an unspecified number of casualties, the Observatory said.
Elsewhere, airstrikes and barrel bombs rained down on the city of Aleppo, killing at least 16 people, including six children, the Observatory added.
The children and a woman were among 14 killed in airstrikes on the neighborhoods of Karam al-Beik and Sadd al-Loz, while two men perished when a barrel bomb was dropped by helicopter on the neighborhood of Sakhour, it said.
Fierce clashes also raged between regime troops and rebels in several parts of Aleppo, as the Tawhid Brigade detonated an explosive device in a tunnel beneath the city’s Justice Palace, with casualties confirmed in the incident, the Observatory said. Four Islamist rebels and a member of the Nusra Front – an Al-Qaeda affiliate – were killed in clashes in the Lairamoun district, while three regime soldiers were killed in fighting near the city’s historic Citadel, the Observatory added.
The violence in Aleppo came as Marcell Shehwaro, a prominent female activist who was detained a day earlier by rebels for refusing to wear the hijab, was released.
The rebels, who had detained Shehwaro and her friend Mohammad Khalili, issued a statement “apologizing in the strongest terms” for the arrests.In the Damascus area, five people were killed by opposition mortar fire in several districts, state news agency SANA and the Observatory reported.
Four people were killed in the Jaramana suburb, southeast of the capital, and another died in the eastern neighborhood of Zablatani, SANA said. Fierce clashes also raged in the neighborhood of Jobar in the capital, activists said.
Rallies were held in the southern province of Deraa, where activists mark March 18 as the outbreak of the uprising, now in its fourth year, while rebels staged an attack on the Gharz prison in the city, according to activists.
Meanwhile, the United States closed down Syria’s embassy to Washington and ordered its remaining diplomatic staff to leave the country if they were not U.S. citizens.
Washington also notified Damascus that it would no longer be able to operate its two consulates in Troy, Michigan, and Houston, Texas, after the embassy announced last week that it would no longer be providing any consular services.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the decision was taken because “the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is so overwhelming.”
More than 140,000 people have been killed in the 3-year-old war, and the regime was “indiscriminately attacking civilians,” Kerry told students at a State Department event.
“So we just felt the idea that this embassy is sitting here with representation that we could take seriously is an insult, and we closed it. It’s that simple,” he said.
The Syrian Embassy in the U.S. capital had been operating for some time without an ambassador, who left the U.S. in December 2011, leaving only a few low-level staff who had been providing limited consular services.
U.S. Special Envoy to Syria Daniel Rubinstein insisted, however, that “despite the differences between our governments, the United States continues to maintain diplomatic relations with the state of Syria as an expression of our longstanding ties with the Syrian people, an interest that will endure long after Bashar Assad leaves power.”
A message on the embassy website Tuesday said: “Please Note that Embassy of Syria would not be able to proceed any consular services starting Tuesday March 18, 2014. Thank you for understanding.”
Washington also said Syrian diplomats at the embassy who were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, were no longer allowed to work in the United States and must leave the country by March 31.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this would likely affect a handful of diplomatic staff and their families.
She confirmed however that the Syrian mission to the United Nations in New York would continue to operate, as part of U.S. obligations for hosting the U.N.