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Syria: Government forces step up Yabroud campaign - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus. Syria's army ambushed Islamist fighters in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital Damascus on Friday, leaving as many as 60 people dead, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said (REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters)

Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are seen in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus. Syria’s army ambushed Islamist fighters in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital Damascus on Friday, leaving as many as 60 people dead, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said (REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syrian forces have stepped up their campaign to retake the strategically important town of Yabroud in the Rif Dimashq governorate after capturing the town of Jarajir, close to the Lebanese border, opposition activists said.

The government’s new campaign coincided with the announcement by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Syrians are being killed at the fastest rate since the country slid into conflict in 2011. The pro-opposition monitoring group announced on Wednesday that at least 3,959 people have been killed in the three-week period since the launch of the Geneva II peace talks on January 22.

“After reaching the highest death toll since the revolution started, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calls for the Geneva II talks to be suspended if [the talks do] not include an immediate halt to all military operations,” the group said.

The Observatory estimated that approximately one third of those killed during this period were civilians, with at least 515 women and children killed in air raids and artillery strikes.

The London-based monitoring group confirmed that the government had stepped up its operations in Rif Dimashq this week, particularly targeting the rebel-held town of Yabroud. The Observatory reported that government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters stepped up their campaign to retake Yabroud this week, confirming that the rebel-held town was hit by no fewer than 20 separate air strikes on Wednesday. Escalating clashes between government/Hezbollah troops and opposition rebels have also been reported in the area of Rima, close to Yabroud.

Yabroud Free Syrian Army (FSA) field commander Abu Al-Nour Al-Yabroudi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The government’s airstrikes are focusing on the Al-Qa’a district in the center of the town, and the Salahiya neighborhood has also been hit by airstrikes.”

He added: “The government forces have surrounded the city and closed all the entrances and exits, specifically the southern ones. The regular forces are pushing in from the north, from the area around Nabak, but the opposition fighters have been able to destroy three tanks.”

He denied that government forces had been able to take control of Rima, on the outskirts of Yabroud, and said government forces continued to bombard the area but the opposition fighters were “preparing to confront the military build-up.”

Opposition sources played down the capture of Jarajir, saying there had been no FSA presence in the town. Ismail Al-Darani, a member of the FSA Revolutionary Command Council for Rif Dimashq, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The regime could have captured this border town at any time, but it decided to do this now in order to raise the army’s morale.”

Darani denied that the government’s capture of Jarajir would “cut the lines of communication with Arsal in Lebanon,” saying the communication lines “extend from Yabroud to Falita and Mushirifa, and from there to Lebanese territory.” Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria have settled in the Lebanese border town of Arsal, with reports claiming that fighters and arms are being transferred to the Syrian rebels across the Lebanese border.

Syrian ally Russia presented two separate draft UN Security Council resolutions on humanitarian aid access and combating “terrorism” on Thursday. “Terrorism is certainly no less acute a problem [than the humanitarian crisis],” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. The draft resolution comes after Moscow said it would reject a Western-Arab draft resolution on humanitarian aid access in Syria.