Syrian forces take three villages near Lebanon border

The seizure of the border communities is the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun since November

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Syrian government troops seized at least three communities along the border with Lebanon, including an ancient Christian hamlet, north of Damascus on Monday, The Associated Press quoted state media and activists as saying.

The capture of Sarkha, Maaloula and Jibbeh comes just a day after President Bashar Assad said the tide was turning in favor of his regime against rebels since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011.

The AP quoted Syria's state news agency as saying forces loyal to Assad captured Sarkha early Monday before also sweeping rebels out of Maaloula, an ancient Christian village set into the rocky hills.

Hours later, a Syrian military commander said troops also seized the nearby town of Jibbehm, the agency added.

The seizure of the border communities, the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun since the regime launched an offensive in the area in November, came a day after government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters captured the nearby town of Rankous, AP said.

The government gains have allowed the military, backed by Hezbollah, to squeeze a key rebel supply route that has long funneled weapons, supplies and fighters to rural Damascus, the news agency said.

By Monday afternoon, only the towns of Arsal al-Ward, Hawsh Arab and Jbaadin remained in rebel hands, said the commander who spoke to an Associated Press reporter on a government-led tour of the area. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

A pro-rebel activist in Qalamoun who uses the name Amer confirmed to AP that the military had taken the communities, but said Jibbeh and Jbaadin had never been in opposition hands. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that both communities had never been under rebel control.

Instead, it appeared that pro-government fighters had pre-emptively seized the towns to ensure rebels would not take them.

Now in its fourth year, Syria's civil war has killed more than 150,000 people and taken on deep sectarian overtones.

Assad said Sunday that the civil war was turning in the government’s favor, state television reported.

“This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the army’s achievements in the war against terror, and socially in terms of national reconciliation processes and growing awareness of the truth behind the [attacks] targeting the country,” the television quoted Assad as saying.

(With AP)

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