Assad army makes fresh gains near Lebanon border
DAMASCUS - Syrian troops made fresh gains in the strategic Qalamun region near the Lebanese border on Saturday, seizing two villages from rebels, a military source said.
"The army took control this morning of the villages of Ras al-Maarra and Flita, after bombing the last groups of armed terrorists there," the source said.
President Bashar al-Assad's troops, backed by fighters of Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have been waging a ferocious assault against rebel positions in Qalamun, north of Damascus, since November.
They seized the rebels' last major stronghold in the region, the town of Yabrud, in mid-March and have since moved on rebel-held villages closer to the border in a bid to stop the flow of weapons and fighters from Lebanon.
The military source said the latest advance "is a new step towards closing off the border with Lebanon."
Though the capture of Flita and Ras al-Maarra has not completely sealed the border, "any success... helps seal the border more tightly, at least at the main crossing points that (the rebels use) to transport vehicles," he added.
Rebel fighters in the two villages were overwhelmed by the army's superior firepower, an activist in the region, Jawad al-Sayed, said.
"The fighters are very visible from the sky, and they are being hit from afar, whether by planes or tanks."
Local rebel commander Ahmed Nawaf Durra was killed in the fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said that despite the army's recapture of the two villages, "it will be very difficult to control the whole border.
"The army and Hezbollah would need to deploy fighters all along the border, which is impossible," he said.