x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

As fighting flares, Syrians pour into Lebanon

About 1,000 families pour into Lebanese frontier town of Arsal to escape heavy fighting in western Syria.

BEIRUT // Thousands of Syrians have poured into Lebanon over the past two days after fleeing an outbreak of heavy fighting in a rugged mountain region just across the border in western Syria.

The clashes in the area known as Qalamoun, which stretches from north of the Syrian capital along the Lebanese frontier, appeared to be part of a government offensive aimed at cutting a key rebel supply route and cementing President Bashar Al Assad’s hold on the strategic corridor from the capital to the coast.

Over the past month, regime forces have made headway against the rebels on two key fronts, capturing a string of opposition-held suburbs south of Damascus and taking two towns and a military base outside the northern city of Aleppo.

Analysts say a government victory in the battle for Qalamoun would deal a severe blow to the already beleaguered rebels outside Damascus.

Since the heavy fighting in Qalamoun began on Friday, about 10,000 Syrians have fled across the border to the Lebanese frontier town of Arsal, said Bassel Hojeiri, a former mayor. The new arrivals have crammed into wedding halls and improvised shacks, he said.

Dana Sleiman, who works for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said about 1,000 Syrian families crossed into Lebanon over the weekend.

She said some families left so quickly that they arrived in Lebanon “without anything except the clothes on their backs”.

Ms Sleiman said most of the Syrians who crossed into Lebanon over the weekend were from the town of Qara, which is the focal point of the offensive along with the nearby towns of Rima and Nabak.

The battle for Qalamoun has been expected for weeks, and both the government and the opposition have been reinforcing their positions in the region ahead of winter, when much of the area is covered with snow.

Qara holds strategic value because of its location on the main highway leading from Damascus to the central city of Homs. If government troops gain the upper hand, they will be able to cut supplies that flow from Lebanon to rebel-held areas around Damascus while also asserting control over movement from the capital to the coast, which is a government stronghold.

On Sunday, two pro-rebel activist groups and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported two airstrikes on Qara. They said the highway was severed and regime forces had gathered on nearby hills, trying to cut supplies to rebels inside the town.

Meanwhile, a series of mortar rounds hitting the centre of Damascus killed four people, the Syrian official news agency Sana said. While mortar fire into the capital is becoming a regular occurrence, residents said the shelling from nearby rebel-held areas into the centre was particularly heavy this week.

The capital and much of southern Syria also experienced a power outage on Sunday evening, the state news agency said. The electricity minister, Imad Khamis, blamed the blackout on a rebel attack.

* Associated Press