Syrian forces take full control of rebel town
Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah militants took full control of the town of Yabroud after driving out rebels, helping President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route connecting the capital Damascus with Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast.
The fall of Yabroud, the last rebel bastion near the Lebanese border, could sever a vital insurgent supply line from Lebanon and consolidate government control over a swathe of territory from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
The army "restored security and stability to Yabroud...after eliminating a large number of terrorist mercenaries", the Syrian military said in a statement hailing the strategic victory.
A military source told Reuters that about 1,400 rebels from the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and other factions had fled Yabroud in the past two days. Another 1,000 militants from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had held out on Saturday to fight government forces which had entered eastern districts of Yabroud and captured several hilltops.
"They fought a fierce battle and then from last night until the early hours of today they all pulled out," he said.
The source said the militants had withdrawn to the nearby villages of Hosh Arab, Fleita and Rankos as well as Arsal, a Lebanese border town 20 km (13 miles) to the northwest.
Hezbollah-operated Al Manar television broadcast scenes from Yabroud's main square where people walked around and talked in apparent safety. Soldiers replaced the three-star flag of the Syrian revolution with the government's two-star banner.
Footage from earlier in the day showed empty streets, shuttered shops and abandoned homes in a main thoroughfare. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.