A view of a part of the town of Yabroud which is a major rebel bastion near the Lebanese border north of Damascus, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on March 15, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah militants took full control of the town of Yabroud on Sunday after driving out rebels, helping President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route linking the capital Damascus to Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast.
The fall of Yabroud, the last rebel bastion near the Lebanese border, could choke off 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 about 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The source said the militants had withdrawn to the nearby villages of Hosh Arab, Fleita and Rankos as well as Arsal, a Lebanese border town 20 km (13 miles) to the northwest.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.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said fighters from the Lebanese Shia Muslim militant group Hezbollah, who supported the Syrian army and pro-government fighters in sealing off the frontier area with Lebanon, were now in control of large parts of Yabroud.
The army had dismantled a large number of explosive devices planted by the rebels, state TV said.
Thousands of civilians fled Yabroud, a town of about 40,000 to 50,000 people roughly 60 km (40 miles) north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the government offensive.
The government has been making incremental gains along the land route and around Damascus and Aleppo in the past months, regaining the initiative in the three-year uprising-turned-civil war which has killed more than 140,000 people.
BATTLE TO CLOSE THE CROSSINGS
The military source said that in parallel to the capture of Yabroud, the army and air force had closed 14 of 18 crossings into Lebanon, where violence has spilled over in the past year.
"In the next few days, the battle will be over closing these remaining crossings," the source said.
Syrian state television said the army was targeting rebels between Fleita and Arsal who had withdrawn from Yabroud.
Al Manar said air raids had destroyed several trucks carrying fleeing militants near Arsal.
An influx of militants into Lebanon from Syria threatens to further destabilise the small Mediterranean country whose own 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims have already been heightened by the war in Syria, causing insecurity and political gridlock.
A local Lebanese official from Arsal told Al Arabiya television he wanted the Lebanese army to secure the border and prevent militants fleeing Yabroud from entering his town.
"We in Arsal are not ready to accept militants. Even if we support the revolution, the militants' battle is in Syria, not in Lebanon. Arsal will not be the place from which war is sparked inside Lebanon," he said.
A Nusra Front fighter in Yabroud denied that the rebels had planned to withdraw to Arsal.