BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces seized a town from rebels near the Lebanese border on Saturday, their latest attempt to cut off opposition fighters' fluid supply lines from the country, state media and activists said.
The fighting in Zara came as President Bashar Assad marked the 51st anniversary of his ruling Baath party's ascent to power, vowing to strengthen relations with international allies that have provided his main backing over the past three tumultuous years.
"The (Baath) leadership's efforts are concentrated on strengthening the alliance with friendly countries such as Russia, Iran and China," state TV quoted Assad as telling a group of local Baath party leaders from the suburbs of Damascus.
Iran is Assad's strongest regional ally, extending him billions of dollars in credit since the crisis began in March 2011. The United States, Saudi Arabia and several countries in the Persian Gulf suspect Tehran is also shipping him weapons.
Russia, backed by China, has repeatedly used veto power at the U.N. Security Council to block Western resolutions calling for sanctions against Assad's government.
The President stressed that his government will continue reconciliation efforts along with fighting "terrorism," referring to some areas where rebels turned over weapons in exchange for an easing of blockades that have prevented food, medicine and other staples from reaching civilians.
The fighting lasted weeks around Zara, which rebels used as a base to attack pro-regime communities in the area, said pro-Syrian media and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. His group obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground.
The town was one of two last strongholds for rebels along the Lebanese border leading to the city of Homs, the other being the nearby village of al-Hosn, said another activist who identified himself as Samy al-Homsi.
"Without al-Hosn and Zara, it will be the end of the revolution to the west of Homs," al-Homsi said. "It's the only two areas left to the rebels there."
Footage from Zara by Lebanon-based broadcaster al-Mayadeen showed plumes of smoke billowing from houses as gunfire and artillery could be heard in the background.
In previous fighting in the area, Syrian forces loyal to Assad fired well into Lebanon, apparently to push back rebels trying to sneak across on well-trodden smuggling routes.
An activist in al-Hosn who uses the name Abu Marwan al-Hosni said most Zara residents fled to his city during the fighting, but at least 20 people were killed after Assad-loyal gunmen entered the town.
"Some of them were butchered inside their homes and then they set the homes on fire. Others, the tanks fired at the homes. Others were killed by snipers as they fled," said al-Hosni. Activist collective the Local Coordinating Committees also reported the information.
Abdurrahman and the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen channel said Syrian forces were now advancing into the nearby area of Hasarijiyeh.
Government troops have struggled to stem the flow of arms and fighters entering from Syria's smaller neighbor. In the town of Yabroud — another rebel logistics hub near the capital — activists say its forces have been pummeling rebels for weeks with crude barrel bombs dropped by aircraft.
Death tolls from the reported strikes vary widely, as has often been the case during the three-year-long conflict. The Observatory said 16 civilians and 14 fighters died strikes on Friday, while an activist, who uses the name Amer, said in a Skype interview that four civilians were killed. Hundreds of civilians have died from the powerful but inaccurate weapons.
Also Saturday, Al-Mayadeen reported that a Syrian cameraman working for the station in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour died while covering clashes between government forces and rebels. The station said Omar Abdul-Qadir suffered a wound in his neck and died in a hospital.
Syria remains the most dangerous country for journalists with more than 63 killed since 2011, including 29 last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Meanwhile, Syria's main Western-backed coalition confirmed Saturday that it has chosen a new army chief following an embarrassing episode in which their former leader refused to step down.
The statement insisted that despite some "confusion," Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir would assume leadership of the coalition's military council.
The body originally issued the announcement appointing al-Bashir on Feb. 17. But two days later, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris rejected his dismissal. Then Idris, along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders, severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the notoriously divided rebel movement.
Idris was ousted by colleagues who blamed him for the waning influence of the coalition-backed Free Syrian Army, as Islamic-orientated brigades grew in power.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.