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Syrian army captures strategic border town

BEIRUT — Syrian government troops and Hezbollah fighters captured a strategic town near the frontier Sunday, ousting opposition fighters from their last stronghold in the vital border area and sending them fleeing to Lebanon.

Yabroud was a major smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The town’s fall is the latest in a string of strategic gains by Assad’s forces that have consolidated authority in the past months in Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus.

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Militants from Lebanon’s Shi’ite group Hezbollah have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed fighters appears to have tipped the balance in the government’s favor in Yabroud.

However, the fact that opposition fighters fled into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, suggests the conflict could bleed further into Syria’s neighbor. The civil war has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi’ites.

“It’s a good day for Assad,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “He has not only survived the past three years, but his army is intact and on a rebound, with his allies Hezbollah firmly behind him.”

However, Gerges warned the fall of Yabroud will reverberate in neighboring Lebanon, “pouring gasoline on sectarian divisions and likely bringing more violence” into the country.

Outgunned by Assad’s army and Hezbollah, rebels abandoned their positions on the hills surrounding Yabroud overnight Sunday, collapsing the fighter ranks inside the town and allowing government forces to move in from the east shortly after dawn, the Syrian army and a spokesman for the rebel coalition said.

Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon. The town overlooks an important cross-country highway from Damascus to the central city of Homs.

“There’s no doubt Yabroud had big strategic importance,” said Captain Islam Alloush, a spokesman of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition that had fought in Yabroud but was now streaming into Lebanon.

The biggest immediate loss, Alloush said, would be that rebels now had no way of supplying fighters outside of Damascus, where Syrian forces have surrounded opposition-held areas, denying them food, power, and clean water.

Syrian Defense Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij hailed the army’s latest triumph while inspecting troops in Yabroud on Sunday.

“We are moving from one victory to another,” Freij said in comments carried by state news agency SANA. He said the army troops are now “chasing terrorists and gangs, and soon, all their hideouts will be destroyed.” Syrian officials routinely refer to rebels as terrorists.

The fall of Yabroud immediately emboldened government forces to attack nearby rebel-held towns, pressing forward in what has been a yearlong advance.

Government warplanes chased the fleeing rebels into Lebanon, state media said, firing two rockets in the outskirts of the border town of Arsal, a logistical base for the Syrian rebels. The surrounding fields and hills have served as shelter for tens of thousands of refugees. Syrian helicopters dropped bombs on villages outside Yabroud, said the deputy mayor of Arsal, Ahmad Fliti, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The bombing killed at least six people, including two children, in the nearby village of Muarat, they said.

Syrian aircraft also fired at least four rockets near Arsal’s barren hills targeting rebels, Lebanon’s state-run news agency reported. The NNA said Lebanese soldiers also detained fleeing rebels who tried to enter the country with their weapons, and opened fire on a vehicle whose driver did not stop at an army checkpoint.

The sectarian tones of Syria’s war have triggered violence in Lebanon, which shares a similar patchwork of minorities.

The chaotic mix of rebels fighting Assad forces are overwhelmingly Sunni, while Syria’s minorities, including Christians, Shi’ites and Alawites, largely have sided with the government or remained neutral. Assad is part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

In Beirut, Hezbollah supporters celebrated Yabroud’s fall with celebratory gunfire in Shi’ite-dominated areas. Youths on motorbikes waving Hezbollah’s yellow flag noisily roared through the city’s upscale central district.

Near the Syrian border, however, an extremist Sunni group in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for firing rockets at a Shi’ite-dominated town near Arsal, local media reported.

One man was killed in the town of Nabi Sheet, while other rockets landed in the nearby town of Labweh on Saturday, the NNA said.

In retaliation, Shi’ite gunmen surrounded Arsal, resident Mohammed Ezzidine said. He said the gunmen prevented dozens of people from entering the town.

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