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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Sunday, January 21, 2018

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Syrian forces bombard opposition stronghold of Yabroud

Yabroud is a mixed Christian-Sunni Muslim town

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DAMASCUS - Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have bombed the opposition stronghold town of Yabroud, backed by a ground offensive, aimed at crushing the insurgency on Syria's border with Lebanon.

Yabroud is a mixed Christian-Sunni Muslim town, 80 km north of Damascus, where Syrian rebel and Islamist forces have held out for more than a year.

Airstrikes pounded Yabroud and its surrounding area, whilst the Syrian military and fighters from the Lebanese militia Hizbollah attacked with mortars and rockets.

"Since the early morning there have been battles around Yabroud, and all of the town is being bombarded," said Taym al-Kalamoni, an activist who spoke from Yabroud, using a pseudonym.

Yabroud is the last rebel stronghold near the Syrian-Lebanese border and the key to the strategic Qalamoun mountain range which straddles the border with Lebanon.

The Hizbollah-Syrian forces advanced with tanks, self-propelled artillery and air force.

Officials from Hizbollah told the Telegraph earlier this week that they were stepping up the "battle for Qalamoun", where they seek to control the mountainous region on the border with Lebanon, which is currently a patchwork of pro and anti-regime villages.

Hizbollah has blamed a recent string of suicide bombings in its stronghold town of Hermel and Beirut on jihadists based in Qalamoun, and has vowed revenge.

Lebanese security forces said on Wednesday they caught a booby-trapped car in Aarsal, a town on the border with Syria.

While fighting has been heavy in other towns along the border with Lebanon - the assault on Qusair last year saw the town destroyed and almost the entire population flee - Yabroud had been relatively untouched.

Home to a large Christian population, it was largely left alone by the government, and, while other opposition towns were being subjected to daily barrages of artillery, the opposition in Yabroud was able to administer the town, setting up local councils and running schools.

Armed rebels were kept on the fringes, and foreign jihadists were not welcome. It was, for a long time, a model town for the Syrian revolution, reported the Telegraph.

The peace was always considered temporary however. With Yabroud being a key part of a supply line for weapons from Lebanon to opposition fighters in the region, it remained a thorn in the government's side.

In the last few months the town has been subjected to sporadic shelling attacks. As the Syrian army fought in surrounding villages, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group, took shelter in Yabroud.

Military sources report that the fall of Yabroud to government forces would open the highway from Damascus to the besieged town of Homs and the Allawite regions loyal to the Assad regime in western Syria.

It would also knock over a location, which Iranian Al Qods Brigades spies report is the source of the serial bombing attacks targeting Hizbollah in Beirut and its command centres in Baalbek and the Beqaa Valley in recent weeks, reports Debkafiles.

On the day of the Yabroud assault, Hizbollah forces captured three women they believed to be suicide bombers on their way from the Beqaa to the Shiite suburb of Beirut. No further details were released about their identities.

In anticipation of the onslaught, dozens of families streamed across the border to Lebanon.

Hundreds of refugees from Yabroud and nearby villages fled to Lebanon in expectation of the attack in the past two days.

Tens of thousands of Syrians, displaced from other parts of the country in the war, had taken shelter in Qalamoun, with Yabroud as the main distribution centre for aid, said the Telegraph.

Humanitarian aid agencies fear that fighting in the area could cause an exodus of tens of thousands of people into Lebanon, which is already struggling to cope with current numbers.

Some activists blamed the timing of the attack on the Geneva II peace talks, saying the government wanted to hold more territory so as to be in a strong position at the negotiating table.

The talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence on the ground in Syria. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 4,959 people have died in Syria in the three-week period since Jan. 22, when the first round of talks began in Switzerland - the highest death toll for any period since the start of the conflict in 2011.

The Syrian regime has also been working to take back areas that it has not been able to win militarily by offering amnesties for rebel fighters who are willing to give up their arms.

More than 1,150 people, almost half the estimated civilian population, have been evacuated from Homs so far in the ceasefire, with more leaving the town on Wednesday.

More than 300 male evacuees aged 15 to 55 have agreed to the deal and been held by authorities in Homs. So far only 42 of them have been released.

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