Opposition forces in Syria claim control of town near Jordanian border

Opposition forces in Syria claim control of an army stronghold near border with Jordan

Anti-government forces active in the southern provinces in Syria wrested control of an army stronghold near the Jordanian border Wednesday, pro-opposition sources said, in a small but significant victory for the rebels.

"The town of Busra al Sham has been completely liberated from the clutches of the [government and pro-government forces] after a battle that lasted for six days," Col. Qassem Hariri, a rebel commander of the Amoud Houran Division, said Wednesday in a video uploaded to YouTube.

There was no statement by official state media, but pro-government outlet Al Alam news said government forces on Tuesday had repulsed an attack by Islamist "terrorists," who used tanks and heavy armor to mount an assault on the town.

The Syrian government routinely describes the armed opposition factions as "terrorists."

Shaamtimes, another pro-government outlet on Wednesday said pro-government forces had evacuated civilians to the nearby town of Suweida. It also quoted a Syrian army source saying "the situation was still under investigation."

Busra al Sham, a government stronghold nestled amid aerial defense bases and army positions, served as a defensive line for Suweida, 12 miles to the northeast.

Busra al Sham is a World Heritage Site with archaeological ruins from the Roman, Byzantine and Muslim eras, including a well-preserved Roman amphitheater, once the site of a national music festival, and a citadel that in recent times was used by the army to shell rebel positions in the Sunni-dominated town.

Opposition sources uploaded images depicting jubilant rebels roaming through the citadel Wednesday, firing their machine guns in celebration.

The rebels also claimed to have captured 16 fighters from the Lebanese Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah and a number of what they described as Iranian fighters. The claims could not be verified, but video uploaded by opposition supporters depicted militiamen burning a Hezbollah flag they claimed had been on top of the citadel.

The footage could not be independently verified.

The Syrian government has bolstered its army with Shiite irregular forces from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. In recent months, rebels in the south have reported a significant presence of Hezbollah units as the government seeks to roll back recent gains made by the opposition in the area.

The town's takeover would represent a victory for the rebels and would allow the opposition to establish a corridor to the Jordanian border, 8 miles to the south.

Jordan has quietly given support to so-called moderate rebel groups in southern Syria, allowing its northern regions to be used as a staging ground for operations on Syrian soil.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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