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Beirut - Syria said its army took control of a key town on the Lebanese border on Sunday, racking up another strategic gain for the government as the conflict enters its fourth year.
Syrian troops, backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, have been tightening their noose on Yabroud, a town just a few miles from the border, for months.
The battle for Yabroud is part of a wider Syrian army and Hezbollah offensive to secure the rugged border area of Qalamoun, cutting rebel supply lines into Syria. The fall of the area's main town would strike a blow to rebel morale as, after three grinding years of conflict, Syrian President Bashar Assad steadily makes gains.
A little more than 24 hours after pro-government forces entered the town Friday night, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said that "terrorist groups" in the town had been "devastated" and that the area was being combed for explosives.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese army said Syrian warplanes had strafed Lebanese territory as they pursued gunmen who had fled across the border, risking further destabilization in Lebanon.
Despite the assertions of a government victory, Islam Alloush, a spokesman for the Islamic Front, an amalgamation of seven Islamist rebel groups, said his fighters and militants from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra were still engaged in clashes in Yabroud, repelling attempts by pro-government forces to enter. He said four Hezbollah fighters were killed.
Activists said government forces were in control of the majority of the town, although rebel-held pockets remained.
Hezbollah's television channel, al-Manar, on Sunday broadcast footage of what it said was Yabroud's town center. Men in fatigues raised a Syrian flag on a pole in the middle of the street, while another held aloft a portrait of Assad.
On Syrian state television, an unnamed government soldier said the seizure of the town was important because it secured the Lebanon-Syria border regions and cut off rebels' supply routes.
Hezbollah and Lebanese officials have said that the Syrian town is the source of several explosives-packed vehicles that have struck Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in recent months.
The sprawling suburbs of Beirut, a base of support for Hezbollah, have been hit by regular car bombs in retaliation for the movement's backing of Assad. Celebratory gunfire could be heard Sunday in the Lebanese capital after reports of Yabroud's capture.
The Qalamoun offensive has sent a new wave of refugees fleeing into Lebanon. For most of the civil war, Yabroud had been largely sheltered from the fighting that has engulfed Syria, the town's population of about 60,000 swelling with the internally displaced.
The offensive in the area drew fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, activists said, and some remained in the town Sunday. Most, however, retreated to nearby Flita and Rankous, the activists said. A senior Jabhat al-Nusra commander was killed on the outskirts of the town Friday as the army and Hezbollah pushed into the city limits for the first time.
Later Sunday, the Syrian air force fired rockets on Lebanese territory as some rebels retreated across the border, said residents of the Lebanese border town of Arsal. The Lebanese army said Syrian planes carried out two raids east of the town, where the Lebanese state has little control.
Fifty casualties from Yabroud were brought to Arsal for treatment, said Kassem Zain, a doctor who runs a field hospital in the town. Eight people died, he said.
Rebels have complained that promised weapons deliveries have not materialized but vow to keep fighting for the town and its surroundings.
"The battle for Qalamoun does not end with Yabroud," said Bassel Foaad, a Qalamoun-based activist who had sought refuge in Arsal.