Syria warplanes hit Yabrud near Damascus: activists
BEIRUT - Agence France-PresseSyria's air force carried out 15 air strikes against the strategic rebel-held Yabrud area near Damascus on Wednesday, as the army escalated a campaign there, activists and a monitor said.
The army meanwhile advanced on Jarajir, a village near Yabrud and on the Lebanese border, a military source told AFP.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Yabrud was hit by 15 air strikes Wednesday, in a major escalation against the main town in the Qalamoun mountains.
The army last year launched a widescale operation to retake a string of towns in the area, seizing Qara, Deir Attiya and Nabk along the highway between Damascus and central Homs.
On the ground, an activist who gave his name as Amer told AFP via the Internet that "the (army's) campaign to take Yabrud has started. The air strikes are accompanied by an attempted ground offensive." Nearby, the army took control of Jarajir, a village near the Lebanese border, a military source said.
But he denied any new offensive, and it was part of "routine" operations against rebels.
Located in the Qalamoun mountains, Yabrud lies near the Lebanese border and on the Damascus highway to the war-torn country's third city Homs, which has suffered some of Syria's worst violence in the past three years.
Despite being under rebel control, Yabrud was spared much of the violence engulfing most other opposition areas. Activists had for many months considered it a haven for non-violent opposition to Syria's regime.
But recently, the jihadist Al-Nusra Front moved into Yabrud as the loyalist army and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah stepped up fighting in other areas of the Qalamoun mountains.
According to the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman, troops and Hezbollah have been upping the pressure on Yabrud for several weeks, frequently shelling the town, which is home to a mixed Muslim and Christian population.
A group of 12 Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox nuns taken by gunmen in early December from the nearby historic town of Maalula are believed to be in Yabrud.
Abdel Rahman added that Hezbollah and the paramilitary National Defence Force were supporting the army in fighting against Al-Nusra Front and local rebels in the Rima area near Yabrud.
Six jihadists and rebels were killed in the fighting against loyalists, he said.
Amateur video distributed by activists shows plumes of black smoke rising above Yabrud's houses and golden hills, as a fighter jet soars through a clear blue sky.
The violence forced families from Yabrud and nearby Flita and Jarajir to flee into Lebanon's Arsal, just across the border, the UN refugee agency UNHCR's Dana Sleiman said on Twitter.
Elsewhere, the death toll from air raids on Aleppo's rebel-held Sakhur neighbourhood on Tuesday rose to 27, including nine children, said the Observatory.
The air force's use of explosive-packed barrel bombs has been widely denounced by rights groups as "indiscriminate." In Daraa in the south, air strikes against Tafas village killed nine people, including six children, said the Britain-based Observatory.
More than 136,000 people have been killed in Syria's nearly three-year war, and millions more forced to flee their homes.