DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces captured Saturday two villages near the border with Lebanon after clashes with opposition fighters, cutting a major supply route for weapons and fighters into Syria, state TV said.
State TV said the villages of Flita and Ras Maara fell into the hands of government forces early in the day. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed troops were advancing in the two villages although it had no immediate word on whether they fell to government forces.
The Observatory said government forces are backed by members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group who openly started taking part in Syria's war last year against opposition forces.
The villages were the latest targets of a government offensive in the rugged Qalamoun border region after troops captured the town of Yabroud earlier this month. Tens of thousands of Syrians fled into Lebanon since the Qalamoun offensive began in November.
Flita, which is about 5 miles (7 kilometers) from the border with Lebanon, had been a major crossing point for rebels coming from across the border into Syria to fight President Bashar Assad's force.
Qalamoun holds strategic value for the government since it is home to the main north-south highway that links the capital to government strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
The TV said the villages fell after government forces "wiped out the last remnants of armed terrorist groups and destroyed its weapons and tools they used in their crimes." The Syrian government refers to rebels as "terrorists."
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said the fighting forced about 700 Syrians to flee to the Lebanese border town of Arsal, and that Lebanese soldiers were checking people's identity cards to make sure no fighters were among them. It said the number of people fleeing is expected to rise amid fighting on the Syrian side.
The agency also said that Syrian warplanes carried out an air raid on the edge of Arsal without saying if there were casualties.
An activist in a nearby area known as eastern Ghouta who goes by the name of Abu Yazan al-Shami confirmed that government forces have captured parts of the two villages but are still facing resistance from rebels inside.
"Fierce and difficult battles are taking place. It is a rugged area and both the regime and the rebels have gathered lots of fighters for this battle," said al-Shami via Skype. He added that the main battle that expected to follow Flita and Ras Maara will be the rebel-held town of Rankous in order for the government "to completely cut supplies from Lebanon into Qalamoun."
In the coastal province of Latakia, the Observatory reported that government warplanes struck areas that are witnessing clashes between rebels and troops. It said the fighting and the air raids are concentrating around the rebel-held areas of Kassab and Nabaain.
Syrian troops have been trying for days to push back opposition fighters who over the past week made rare territorial gains in Assad's ancestral heartland.
Government troops have been battling for days with rebels from several Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, that launched the offensive in the province last week. They seized a number of towns, a border crossing with Turkey and — for the first time in the 3-year-old conflict — a tiny stretch of coast giving the rebels an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.
Latakia, a mountainous and wooded region, is the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is a minority in Syria but is a major pillar of Assad's rule. Sunni Muslims dominate the rebel ranks fighting to oust Assad.
Syria's uprising, which began with largely peace protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones that has left more than 140,000 people dead.
Mroue reported from Beirut.