Syrian forces enter rebel stronghold near
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[March 15, 2014]
By Stephen Kalin
BEIRUT (Reuters) — Syrian soldiers entered
eastern districts of the town of Yabroud, the last rebel bastion near
the Lebanese border north of Damascus, on Saturday and advanced towards
the main street, Al Mayadeen television said.
The Beirut-based station broadcast footage showing soldiers
charging through a field towards an arched entrance of the town and
a sign saying "Welcome to Yabroud". Gunfire could be heard as the
Capturing Yabroud would help President Bashar al-Assad choke off a
cross-border rebel supply line from Lebanon. The town is near the
highway linking Damascus to the former commercial hub of Aleppo in
the north and to the Mediterranean coast in the west, where Assad's
minority Alawite community is concentrated.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the
government was pounding some districts of Yabroud with improvised
barrel bombs and shelling its outskirts.
The anti-Assad Observatory said heavy fighting was going between
government forces supported by Lebanese Shi'ite militant group
Hezbollah and rebel factions including the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's
official branch in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda splinter group.
Thousands of people 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 highway
as well as around Damascus and Aleppo in recent months, regaining
the initiative in a conflict which entered its fourth year this
A senior commander in the Nusra Front was killed late on Friday on
the outskirts of Yabroud during shelling and clashes with the army
and Hezbollah fighters, the Observatory said.
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Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti was the deputy leader of the Nusra Front in
Qalamoun, the mountainous zone between Damascus and the Lebanese
border where Yabroud is situated.
He had been a principal negotiator in the prisoner exchange last
week which secured the release of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns held by the
Nusra Front since December, according ot the Observatory.
More than 140,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have fled
abroad as refugees in an increasingly sectarian civil war. The
conflict began with mass street protests against Assad in March 2011
but turned into an armed insurgency after a violent security
crackdown on demonstrators.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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