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Syria government forces seize strategic town near Lebanon border

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BEIRUT — After weeks of fighting, the Syrian military has wrested control of a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border in the strategic province of Homs, military and opposition representatives said Saturday.

The seizure of Zara, close to the main highway linking Homs city to the Mediterranean coast, is the latest reported government advance in its effort to seal the porous border with Lebanon, long a conduit for antigovernment fighters and arms.

In a statement, the Syrian military hailed the seizure of Zara, which "had been used as a main passage for the terrorist groups that would come from Lebanon and head to neighboring areas to carry out their criminal operations."

The Syrian government routinely refers to rebels as "terrorists" and "mercenaries."

Syrian state media said that "large numbers" of " terrorists" were killed in the takeover of Zara and that 30 gunmen had surrendered to authorities and handed over their weapons.

A Britain-based pro-opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that Zara fell "after violent battles that lasted days."

Syrian authorities had regarded rebel-held Zara as an especially difficult obstacle because of the presence there of well-armed Islamist rebels affiliated with various militant factions. Last month, a pro-government official in the region showed visiting journalists from The Times images on his cellphone said to depict rebel forces in Zara brandishing the severed heads of government loyalists.

Zara, along with several other towns and the historic Crusader castle of the Krak des Chevaliers, has formed the last remaining rebel-held patch of western Homs province.

Both the Syrian military and opposition websites reported the government takeover of Zara, which has a large population of Turkmens, ethnic Turks who are mostly Sunni Muslims. Syria's Sunni majority has spearheaded the revolt against the government of President Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Syrian civil war, now approaching its third anniversary, has taken on a sectarian character, especially in Homs, a central province that has a volatile mix of Sunni, Alawite, and Christian populations.

On Thursday, the government said that "terrorists" had detonated a car bomb in a largely Armenian Christian neighborhood in Homs city, killing at least 15 people.

The fall of Zara, coupled with the military's recent advances in the mountainous Qalamoun region to the southeast, solidifies the government's gains in its long campaign to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border as well as highways linking Damascus, the capital, to Syria's central and coastal provinces.

On Saturday, reports indicated that the government had pressed closer to another strategic rebel-held town, Yabroud, about 60 miles southeast of Zara. The opposition has reported days of heavy shelling and aerial bombardment of Yabroud, 35 miles east of the Lebanese border.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Bulos is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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