YABRUD (Syria): Syria’s army and Lebanon’s Hezbollah seized full control of the rebel bastion Yabrud on Sunday, dealing the opposition a heavy symbolic and strategic blow in the Qalamoun region adjoining the Lebanese border.

Syrian soldiers sat in the streets after seizing the town in fierce clashes with the support of battle-hardened fighters Hezbollah and pro-regime militiamen.

“It was a very difficult battle, possibly the most difficult we have faced,” a soldier who identified himself as Abu Mohammed said in Yabrud’s central square between puffs from a traditional water-pipe.

Earlier, the army announced it had “returned security and stability” to the town and its surroundings.

“This new success... is an important step towards securing the border area with Lebanon, and cutting off the roads and tightening the noose around the remaining terrorist cells in Damascus province,” the military added.

While scores of soldiers and fighters wearing different kinds of uniforms could be seen in Yabrud, not one civilian could be spotted anywhere.

Graffiti in the colours of the pro-revolt flag still adorned the heavily damaged town’s walls, while a fighter jet could be heard overhead.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group relying on a network of contacts inside Syria, said Hezbollah had led the operation and “taken control of large parts of Yabrud.”

The Observatory and sources across the border in Lebanon reported multiple air raids, including with explosive-packed barrel bombs, on the area between Yabrud and the Lebanese town of Arsal.

The NGO said at least six people were killed in raids on the area, among them two children.

Syrian state television said the army was targeting “groups of terrorists” fleeing Yabrud in the direction of Arsal.

The fall of Yabrud comes after months of Syrian army operations in the strategic Qalamoun region, north of Damascus, where the town is situated.

Late last year, the army captured a string of nearby towns before turning it sights to Yabrud.

The town was once home to some 30,000 people, including a Christian minority, and had been a rebel bastion since early in the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011.

According to Abu Akram, a Syrian army soldier in Yabrud, the military now aims to take over Flita and Rankus, two rebel positions on the road to Lebanon.

Key strategic prize: In addition to its symbolic importance, Yabrud is a key strategic prize because of its proximity to the highway and the Lebanese border, across which rebels have smuggled fighters and weapons.

The capture of the town, and continuing army operations in the surrounding area, will sever important supply lines for the rebels as they face several army advances on different fronts.

“It underlines yet again that the real momentum in the strategic zones of this conflict is now with the government,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre.

The town’s seizure could also place new pressure on Lebanon’s Arsal, which is hosting at least 51,000 Syrian refugees, many from the Qalamoun region.

Sunni Arsal is largely sympathetic to the Sunni-led uprising, and rebel fighters are believed to have bases in areas around the town, which are regularly targeted by Syrian war planes.

Arsal municipality official Ahmad Fliti said that the Syrian air force was staging continuous raids outside the town on Sunday.

Yabrud’s capture was cheered in Damascus by hundreds of residents who took to the streets to celebrate.

Hezbollah played a key role in the town’s capture, and Lister said he expected the group to continue cooperating with regime forces in the area.

“It is likely that joint Hezbollah-Syrian army forces in the area could end up fanning out with the secondary aim of acquiring near total control of the Lebanese border,” he said.—AFP