ARSAL, Lebanon (AP) — The two sisters squeezed the hands of their blind grandfather for nearly seven hours as they made the perilous nighttime trek by foot along rugged mountain roads subjected to sporadic shelling before finally crossing the Syrian border to safety in Lebanon.
Mehrez Humeidan and his granddaughters Ikram and Inaam were among at least 6,000 Syrians that the United Nations says have poured into Lebanon over the past three days. The refugees are escaping a government offensive that began Friday and aims to dislodge rebels from the mountainous Qalamoun region, which runs north from Damascus along the frontier.
Qalamoun holds strategic value for both sides in Syria's civil war. It serves as a key supply route from Lebanon to opposition forces around Damascus, and it is home to the main north-south highway that links the capital to government strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
The offensive is part of a broader government push that has seen Assad's forces seize the momentum in the civil war, capturing a string of opposition-held suburbs south of Damascus as well as two towns and a military base around the northern city of Aleppo.
The battlefield gains have strengthened the government's hand as the world community pushes for peace talks in Geneva.
The town of Qara, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Damascus along the highway in Qalamoun, has borne the brunt of the government offensive so far. On Monday, government warplanes and artillery pounded the town and surrounding countryside, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of activists to monitor the conflict.
Mehrez Humeidan, 70, recounted his family's escape as he rested in a restaurant-turned-shelter for some 200 refugees in the Lebanese frontier town of Arsal.
"We walked at night and it was a very difficult road. Look how my feet were injured by thorns" he said, his head wrapped in a white cloth as he shivered under a blanket.
He said he and his relatives set out from Qara around 6 p.m. Friday and walked for nearly seven hours under shellfire until a man passing in a vehicle gave them a ride to Arsal.
"Don't ask me about the shelling," he said. "It was beyond explanation."
His granddaughters, Ikram, 8, and Inaam, 10, nestled up next to him as they talked about their journey.
"I was holding grandfather's hand all the way and telling him how to walk and whether there is a step," said Inaam, who like her sister was bundled up against the first winter chill.
The opposition was dealt another blow on Monday when the leader of one of the most prominent rebel brigades, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, died of wounds sustained in a government airstrike last week. Saleh founded the Tawhid Brigade, which boasts an estimated 10,000 fighters and spearheaded fighting that seized large sections of the northern city of Aleppo last year.
The brigade was once part of the mainstream Free Syrian Army, considered to be the military wing of Syria's exiled Western-backed opposition. But in September, the brigade broke away and later formed the Islamic Authority, a coalition of Islamic rebel groups, including one linked to al-Qaida.
On Thursday night, a government airstrike hit the brigade's command post in Aleppo province, according to local activists and the Observatory. The 34-year-old Saleh was severely wounded and later died in a hospital in Turkey, said a brigade spokesmen who goes by the name of Akram al-Halaby. Many rebels do not use their real names, fearing they or their families will be identified and targeted by security forces.
The strike also killed a senior brigade officer, Abu Tayeb, and wounded another spokesman, Saleh Anadan.
Saleh was buried in his hometown of Marea in Aleppo province, al-Halaby told The Associated Press. The brigade's political chief, Abdul-Aziz Salameh, who was lightly wounded in Thursday's shelling, was appointed to succeed Saleh, he said.
Salameh himself announced Saleh's death in a video the group uploaded to YouTube. Flanked by somber looking men, some in military fatigues and others in robes typical of conservative scholars, he urged fighters to close ranks.
"Our martyrs are in heaven and yours are in hell," he said, addressing Assad's forces.
Saleh's trajectory reflected that of many ordinary Syrians who joined the armed uprising against Assad's rule. He was a married merchant who took part in peaceful demonstrations that began in March 2011. After a violent crackdown by security forces, Syria's conflict became an armed uprising and Saleh turned to guns.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.