DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters captured Wednesday the last major town in the Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon after weeks of intense fighting, state media and activists said.
Syrian TV and Lebanon’s Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar station said the town of Rankous fell earlier Wednesday, depriving the rebels their last major base in the rugged area.
President Bashar Assad’s forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have been on the offensive in the Qalamoun region since November when they have captured most of the border area with Lebanon. The six-month battle forced tens of thousands of Syrians to flee to safety in Lebanon.
The capture of Rankous and other towns and villages has cut a major supply route for weapons and fighters into the country from eastern Lebanon.
Syrian TV aired live footage from inside Rankous on Wednesday saying that the operation to capture the town lasted 18 hours. Much of the homes appeared intact in the town’s center overlooked by a mosque with a green dome on top of a hill over the area.
“Rankous returns to the nation and is under the control of the Syrian Arab Army,” a TV announcer said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported that troops and Hezbollah fighters are in full control of the town. It added that the fighting is continuing in a nearby area known as Rankous Farms.
The capture of Rankous came as state media and the Observatory reported two explosions in the central city of Homs that went off in the same neighborhood, minutes apart.
The Observatory said the explosion occurred in the Karm el-Loz neighborhood that is mostly inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. It said four people were killed and the number is expected to rise as others were critically wounded.
Syria’s uprising began with largely peace protests against Assad’s rule. It has since then evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad’s government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
An official at the Homs municipality, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the blasts killed at least six people and wounded an unknown number of others.
An eye witness told The AP that the second car blew up nearly half an hour after the first blast at a time rescue workers were in the area to evacuate the wounded.
Also Wednesday, the U.N. refugee agency said it had delivered aid to a rebel-held area of the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo in a “rare and risky” operation carried out in cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent.
UNHCR said in a statement that the operation took place following an agreement with the Syrian government and the opposition to observe a brief cease-fire that was respected by both sides.
It said two trucks packed with blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits and kitchen sets and food were delivered to the needy in the besieged neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr in eastern Aleppo.
UNHCR staff observed a “dire” humanitarian situation in the area, including acute shortage of food, water and medicine, the statement said. UNHCR last accessed the area in June 2013.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.
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