Syrian army, Hezbollah advance in city near Lebanese border

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army backed by Lebanese ally Hezbollah has advanced deeper into the besieged Syrian city of Zabadani two weeks into a campaign to capture it from insurgents, rebels and the army said.

The control of the city, about 45 km (30 miles) northwest of the capital Damascus, is seen as crucial to consolidate government-held areas linking Lebanon and Syria. Zabadani is a former popular resort on the main Beirut-Damascus highway.

Hezbollah militiamen and the army, aided by reinforcements, advanced closer to Zabadani’s center under cover of heavy artillery fire and intense aerial bombardments of insurgent hideouts, rebels and the army said.

Footage released by the Syrian army showed troops in the heart of the southeastern district of Sultani, the focus of street fighting. Rebels said some 500 families were still inside Zabadani and had taken shelter but the city was mostly deserted.

Its capture would be a strategic gain for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose army is battling on several other fronts with groups including non-jihadist rebels and hardline Islamic State militants.

A victory over the rebels would also secure a corridor for Hezbollah to transport fighters and arms. The Shi’ite Muslim group’s military role inside Syria has been growing steadily since the start of the conflict in 2011.

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