BEIRUT: The Syrian Army and Hezbollah are advancing on the village of Flita near the Lebanon border, where rebels had fled following the fall of the Syrian city of Yabroud, Hezbollah sources and an activist group told The Daily Star.
“There was heavy fighting yesterday evening and last night, as the regime tried to take the town, but that has now stopped,” Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.
The regime is continuing to shell the city, he said.
A leader of the Military Council of Qalamoun, a rebel group, was killed in clashes, and around eight others, including one of his assistants, were killed in a barrel bomb attack, Abdul-Rahman added.
Earlier this month, the Syrian Army and Hezbollah took Yabroud after months of battles for the strategically-located city, as it acted as a conduit for rebel supplies from Lebanon.
Syrian planes bombed rebel positions in the coastal province of Latakia, where opposition fighters have been making gains while battling government troops for six straight days, the Observatory said.
Government troops have been battling for days with the rebels from several Islamic groups, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front, that launched the offensive in the province a week ago, seizing a number of towns, a border crossing with Turkey and - for the first time in the 3-year-old conflict - a tiny stretch of coast giving the rebels an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.
Fierce clashes were ongoing Thursday as the army tried to wrestle back the predominantly Christian Armenian town of Kassab and nearby village of Nabaan, both seized by the rebels.
Artillery aimed at rebels in Kassab echoed across the area at the rate of one every two minutes, according to an Associated Press reporter in Misherfeh, a village nestled at the foothills of mountains overlooking Kassab.
A field commander speaking to reporters in Misherfeh said the army was making progress against the fighters.
"The army and the National Defense Forces are moving toward Kassab from Nabaan and Qastal Maaf," said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Latakia, a mountainous and wooded region, is the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is a minority in Syria but is a major pillar of Assad's rule. Sunni Muslims dominate the rebel ranks fighting to oust Assad.
Government aircraft dropped several barrel bombs on a hilltop area known as Observatory 45, also seized by rebels several days ago, said Observatory, a Britain-based group that follows the conflict through activists on the ground. The Local Coordination Committees, a Syria-based opposition group that also documents the conflict, reported two government airstrikes on the strategic post.
The post is key because it has a commanding view of the contested surrounding mountains and green plains below.
The rebel push into Latakia appeared to have caught Assad's forces off guard. It came as the military was celebrating major gains near the border with Lebanon and around the capital Damascus. The military rushed in fighters from a pro-government militia and warplanes to bolster troops in the counter-offensive.
Over the past month, Assad's forces, backed by his allies from the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, have captured a series of rebel-held towns and villages along Syria's border with Lebanon, squeezing the flow of rebel fighters, weapons and supplies across the frontier.
In Homs, Syrian official news service said a correspondent for a pro-government TV station was injured while on assignment there. SANA news agency said Nibal Ibrahim, a correspondent for Al-Ikhbariya TV was shot in the leg while filming an underground tunnel used by rebels in the central city. SANA said terrorists were behind the attack on Ibrahim, a term officials use for rebels. -- The Daily Star, with AP