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Syrian army advancing on rebel town near Lebanon

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AL-SAHEL, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces are tightening their grip on the last rebel stronghold near the border with Lebanon a day after taking control of a key village in the area, a field commander told reporters on Tuesday.

According to the commander, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad are gaining ground in the battle for Yabroud, an opposition-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region along Syria’s border with Lebanon that is also a key supply route for the rebels.

The commander said government troops ousted opposition fighters from the village of al-Sahel on Monday, bringing down the rebels’ “first defense line” of Yabroud. He spoke to reporters during a government-led tour of al-Sahel and did not give his name, in line with military regulations.

Backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, Syrian troops have been on the offensive in Qalamoun since December, trying to sever the rebel supply route from Lebanon.

Lebanese Hezbollah leaders are keen on having the region across the border in Syria cleared of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels trying to topple Assad’s government. The Shiite militant group claims that several cars that were used in recent bombings in Beirut have been rigged in Yabroud and smuggled into Lebanon for attacks on Hezbollah strongholds.

Al-Qaida-linked groups have claimed responsibility for several of the attacks in Lebanon, saying they were retaliation for the groups’ military backing for Assad on the battlefield.

Opposition groups said fighting was underway on Tuesday on the edge of Yabroud, with military helicopters dropping barrel bombs on the town’s outskirts. Such bombs, a weapon of choice in government attacks on far-flung rebel strongholds, are packed with explosives and fuel and are intended to cause massive damage to urban areas.

Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said rebels fighting in Yabroud predominantly belong to hard-line Islamic group, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front and the breakaway group of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The Syrian field commander said the army is battling “terrorists” in Qalamoun and troops are determined to clear the area by launching a final assault from al-Sahel. He said “moral was high among the troops as they fulfill their mission” to capture Yabroud.

The village was deserted on Tuesday as the government troops escorted reporters along. There was damage on several houses and a mosque, apparently from fighting, and telephone and electricity cables were torn from poles and strewn on sidewalks.

At least one body, of a man, was seen on the ground.

“It was a real battle and we didn’t give the gunmen any chance to negotiate,” the commander said. He did not say if the army or the rebels sustained any casualties, but said the troops detained more than 30 opposition fighters after capturing the village.

Many of those captured were Syrians, the commander said, although there were also foreign fighters who had traveled to Syria from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon to battle Assad’s troops.