Officers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad talk to
the media at Yabroud town. REUTERS/SANA
Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah militants have taken
full control of the town of Yabroud after driving out rebels,
helping President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route
connecting the capital Damascus with Aleppo and the
The fall of Yabroud, the last rebel bastion near the Lebanese
border, could sever a vital insurgent supply line from
Lebanon and consolidate government control over a swathe of
territory from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
The army "restored security and stability to Yabroud...after
eliminating a large number of terrorist mercenaries", the
Syrian military said in a statement hailing the strategic
A military source told Reuters that about 1,400 rebels from
the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and other factions had
fled Yabroud in the past two days. Another 1,000 militants
from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had held out on Saturday
to fight government forces which had entered eastern
districts of Yabroud and captured several hilltops.
"They fought a fierce battle and then from last night until
the early hours of today they all pulled out," he said.
The source said the militants had withdrawn to the nearby
villages of Hosh Arab, Fleita and Rankos as well as Arsal, a
Lebanese border town 20 km (13 miles) to the northwest.
Hezbollah-operated Al Manar television broadcast scenes from
Yabroud's main square where people walked around and talked
in apparent safety. Soldiers replaced the three-star flag of
the Syrian revolution with the government's two-star banner.
Footage from earlier in the day showed empty streets,
shuttered shops and abandoned homes in a main thoroughfare.
Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring
group said fighters from the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim militant
group Hezbollah, who supported the Syrian army and
pro-government fighters in sealing off the frontier area with
Lebanon, were now in charge of large parts of Yabroud.
"The Nusra Front had a lot of influence in the region, but
their influence has now ended," Rami Abdelrahman, head of the
Observatory, told Reuters. He said it was unclear where the
more than 2,000 foreign fighters in the area had ended up.
The army was dismantling a large number of explosive devices
planted by the rebels in Yabroud, Syrian state television
Thousands of civilians fled Yabroud, a town of about 40,000
to 50,000 people roughly 60 km (40 miles) north of Damascus,
and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled
last month ahead of the government offensive.
The government has been making incremental gains along the
land route and around Damascus and Aleppo in the past months,
regaining the initiative in the three-year
uprising-turned-civil war which has killed more than 140,000
Syria's Mediterranean coastal region is strategically vital
for Assad because it is the heartland of his minority Alawite
community, whose faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
The military source said that among the rebel positions the
army seized was the headquarters where the Nusra Front had
held hostage 13 Greek Orthodox nuns for more than three
months before their release last week in a rare prisoner
BATTLE TO CLOSE THE CROSSINGS
The military source said that in parallel to the capture of
Yabroud, the army and air force had closed 14 of 18 crossings
into Lebanon, where violence has spilled over in the past
"In the next few days, the battle will be over closing these
remaining crossings," the source said.
Syrian television said the army was targeting rebels between
Fleita and Arsal who had withdrawn from Yabroud. Al Manar
said air raids had destroyed several trucks carrying fleeing
militants near Arsal.
The military dropped barrel bombs on Ras al-Maara, a
rebel-held village 10 km (6 miles) east of the Lebanese
border, killing at least six people including two children,
according to the Observatory.
An influx of militants into Lebanon from Syria threatens to
further destabilise the small Mediterranean country whose own
15-year civil war ended in 1990. Sectarian tensions between
Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims have already been heightened by the
war in Syria, causing insecurity and political gridlock.
A local Lebanese official from Arsal told Al Arabiya
television he wanted the Lebanese army to secure the border
and prevent Sunni militants fleeing Yabroud from entering his
"We in Arsal are not ready to accept militants. Even if we
support the revolution, the militants' battle is in Syria,
not in Lebanon. Arsal will not be the place from which war is
sparked inside Lebanon," he said.
A Lebanese security source told Reuters that Lebanon's army
was confronting insurgents crossing the border from Syria.
Forces in Arsal detained a group of Syrians carrying "weapons
of war and ammunition," Lebanon's National News Agency said.
In a separate incident, the army fired on militants in a
pickup truck near Arsal after they bypassed a checkpoint, but
failed to prevent their escape, the security source said.
A Nusra Front fighter in Yabroud denied that the rebels had
planned to withdraw to Arsal.