Syrian forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, are in full control of Yabroud after clearing out rebels holed up in the strategic Syrian town for months, Syrian state media and opposition activists have reported.
Capturing Yabroud, the last major rebel bastion near the Lebanese border north of Damascus, will help President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route linking his Mediterranean coastal stronghold with the capital Damascus, and choke off a cross-border rebel supply line from Lebanon.
“The Syrian army is now in full control of the town of Yabroud in Damascus [province] and are now combing through the city and dismantling the roadside bombs planted by terrorists,” SANA news agency reported on Sunday.
“We took total control of the town at 10:00 am (0800 GMT),” an army officer confirmed to the AFP news agency as visibly exhausted soldiers rested on pavements lining the streets.
“This was the most difficult battle we have fought because the rebels were in mountains surrounding the town, and in buildings in Yabrud,” the officer said.
“First we had to occupy the hills, and then on Saturday we entered the town through the east, up to the sports centre. Today we finished the work.”
A military source told the Reuters news agency that most of the rebels had pulled out of Yabroud around dawn on Sunday, a day after pro-government forces had entered eastern districts of the town and captured several strategic hilltops in the surrounding Qalamoun mountains.
Abu al-Huda al-Homsi, an activist in Qalamoun, told Al Jazeera that the Syrian regime soldiers and Hezbollah stormed into Yabroud under a cover of heavy aerial and artillery bombardment.
“They used a scorched-earth policy, showering us with tens of shells every day until he fighters were forced to withdraw,” he said.
But a spokesman for the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, said Assad’s forces had not captured the city and that fighting was continuing on the outskirts of Yabroud.
A fighter in Yabroud from Jabhat al-Nusra said the rebels were heading towards nearby rebel-held villages including Hosh Arab, Rankous and Flita.
Meanwhile, a Lebanese military source was quoted by Lebanese local channel LBC on Sunday as saying that more than 1,000 fighters fled to the mountainous border area near the Lebanese town of Arsal, a crossing point 20km to the northwest which rebels and refugees have used regularly.
The Jabhat al-Nusra fighter, however, told Reuters the rebels did not plan to withdraw to Arsal.
Ahmad Fliti, the vice mayor of Arsal, told Al Jazeera that the Syrian airforce launched multiple strikes on the outskirts of Arsal on Sunday. The Sunni town has been exposed to frequent aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime over the past year.
Al-Manar TV, the mouthpiece for Hezbollah, which spearheaded the fight to dislodge fighters from Yabroud, aired footage showing soldiers searching the town.
With the fall of Yabroud, Hezbollah managed to sever a key rebel supply line to Arsal.
The Syrian regime has been making incremental gains along the land route as well as around Damascus and Aleppo in the past months, regaining the initiative in a conflict entering its fourth year.
More than 140,000 people have been killed in the increasingly sectarian civil war, which began with mass street protests against Assad but turned into an armed conflict after a violent security crackdown on demonstrators.