Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized a key rebel supply town on the Lebanese border yesterday, driving them from the area and scoring a major blow against them in the conflict.
The fall of Yabroud immediately emboldened government forces to attack nearby rebel-held towns, pressing forward in what has been nearly a year-long advance against rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Support from the Shiite Hezbollah appears to have tipped the balance in the border area, even as it has partly prompted the conflict to bleed into Lebanon where it has ignited tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.
Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon, and overlooks an important cross-country highway from Damascus to the central city of Homs. It the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where Assad's forces have been waging an offensive for months to sever routes across the porous border. Its fall comes just a week after the Syrian army seized the village of Zara, another conduit for rebels from Lebanon into central Syria.
Syria's state television reported that military forces were removing booby-traps and bombs and hunting down rebel hold-outs in Yabroud. "Our armed forces are now chasing the remnants of the terrorist gangs in the area," said a soldier.
A spokesman of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition, said fighters fled the hills that overlook Yabroud before Syrian army troops entered. Captain Islam Alloush said other rebels later fled Yabroud overnight, collapsing the ranks of fighters.
"There's no doubt Yabroud had big strategic importance," Alloush said. "This will make it easier for the regime to occupy other nearby villages."