The Syrian army and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters entered the rebel-held city of Zabadani on the second day of a major offensive to capture the strategic border area that lies on the international highway that links the two countries.
The Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah’s television station al Manar said its fighters and the Syrian army had entered Jamaiyat district in the western part of the besieged city located nearly 45km northwest of Syrian capital Damascus.
The Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia said they had launched a major ground and air assault on the rebel-held Syrian city of Zabadani on Saturday and were closing in on insurgents holed up inside. The army, with its Shi’ite ally Hezbollah, has long sought to wrest control of Zabadani from Sunni rebels who have held it since 2012, a year after the start of the Syrian civil war. The city is near the Lebanese border and the Beirut-Damascus highway that links the countries, and so capturing it would be a major strategic gain for Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government.
Footage released on Hezbollah’s TV channel al Manar and Syrian state TV showed large plumes of smoke rising from the city, and the sounds of aerial bombardment and heavy artillery shelling could be heard. New footage showed artillery rounds being fired from high ground in a mountain range that surrounds the Zabadani towards the centre of the city.
The once popular resort city, northwest of the capital Damascus, is one of the rebels’ last strongholds along the border. It was part of a major supply route for weapons sent by Syria to Hezbollah before the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian conflict, which has killed over 200,000 people.
The Syrian army said it had inflicted heavy casualties on “the terrorist groups fortified inside the city” and was advancing from several fronts towards their positions. A hilltop west of Zabadani that overlooks rebel positions, known as Qalat al Tel, was also captured, the army said.
The rebels said they had planted mines around the city, which is now mostly deserted, and were well prepared to repel the assault. The assault began at dawn with a heavy barrage of missiles accompanied by dozens of aerial bombings raids and a large deployment of ground troops, rebel sources said.