MAALOULA: Syrian troops triumphantly swept through some of the last remaining opposition strongholds north of Damascus, including a much coveted ancient Christian hamlet, sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills amid an ever tightening noose.

The near total collapse of rebels along a key supply route that has long funnelled weapons to opposition-held districts around Damascus helps strengthen President Bashar Assad’s hand in and around the capital ahead of presidential elections during which he intends to run for a third term.

The dramatic capture of Sarkha, Maaloula and Jibbeh was the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun region since the government launched an offensive in November in the strategic area, a wedge of mountainous territory between the capital and the Lebanese border.

The string of military achievements there this year by government forces — often boosted by allied Hezbollah fighters — adds another layer of defence for Damascus.In Maaloula, a historic and scenic Christian enclave set into the rocky hills that has changed hands several times in the war, Syrian soldiers jubilantly hoisted the Syrian flag atop the shattered facade of a perched, landmark hotel where rebels had been holed up for months.

In a sign of the persistent dangers, three members of a television crew working with the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV were killed when their car came under a hail of bullets in the town.

The three had been filming in the area when the two-car convoy they were travelling in came under fire.Al-Manar identified the three as reporter Hamza al-Haj Hassan, technician Halim Allaw, and cameraman Mohammed Mantash.

Two of their colleagues were also wounded, it said. The station’s director general, Ibrahim Farhat, said it was not clear whether the crew was specifically targeted.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Assad, despised by the overwhelmingly rebels fighting to topple him. Fighters from the group have travelled to Syria and have been instrumental in helping Syrian troops secure areas around the capital.Rebels still hold a few towns and other pockets in Qalamoun.

Control of the region means control over the flow of weapons and fighters to Ghouta, a sprawling opposition area east of Damascus from which rebels have been firing mortars into the capital. It is also important because of a highway that links Damascus to the Mediterranean port of Latakia and the coast, the heartland of the Alawite sect that Assad and his family belong to.”

It’s an extremely important region for the security of Damascus,’’ said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who closely follows the Syrian conflict.”

The army will do anything to keep the roads from Damascus to Beirut for themselves, after losing many crossings with Turkey,’’ Jaber said.

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