Bashar Assad's forces and allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia forces stepped up attacks on Syria's strategic border town of Yabroud on Saturday, activists said, in apparent preparation for a new offensive to flush out rebels.
More than 10 airstrikes had already hit the mountain border town on Saturday, a Zaman al-Wasl reporter in the Qalamoun area said. Rebels also claimed to have shot down a MIG-16 fighter jet and destroyed four tanks of Assad’s army.
Meanwhile, the pro-opposition ‘Radio Free Syria’ confirmed that 17 Hezbollah militant, including a top commander were killed.
The station quoted eyewitnesses saying that regime forces had withdrawn from Yabroud after suffering heavy losses, with large numbers of bodies of Hezbollah militants counted.
The assault on Yabroud is the latest step in Assad's campaign to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border region and fortify the president's hold on central Syria, from the capital Damascus to his stronghold on the coast.
The attack is part of what locals have called the "Battle for Qalamoun", the name of mountainous region along the frontier with Lebanon used by both the rebels and Assad's allies to smuggle in people and supplies.
Syria's nearly three-year conflict began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but devolved into an armed conflict after a security force crackdown.
Syria's war has since March 2011 killed more than 140,000 people and forced millions more to flee.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) said on 9 Februarythat over 10,000 Syrians mainly from Sahel and Yabroud in Syria have arrived to Arsal, Lebanon.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer