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Assad forces claim capture of key town

State media in Syria claim that government troops have seized "full control" of Yabrud, the last rebel bastion bordering Lebanon. Rebels have appealed for more weapons as Syria's conflict enters its fourth year.

A key rebel supply town fell to Syrian government forces on Sunday, according to Syrian state television. Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters had backed troops of President Bashar al-Assad in the battle, according to the opposition activists, who said fighting was still ongoing.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in Britain said Assad regime warplanes had dropped barrels packed with explosives on Yabrud. At least five rebels had been killed.

A local Syrian pro-rebel doctor said rebels had fled to the nearby town of Flita, but a hardcore of fighters had decided to fight to the death in Yabrud.

"They don't want to surrender," said Kasem Alzein, "Supplies are cut off. The weapons that were promised (to rebels) never arrived."

If verified, rebels will have lost a key supply route from Lebanon. Yabrud was a rebel stronghold since early 2011

when the opposition uprising began

against Assad.

Yabrud also lies on an important highway that connects Damascus to Syria's third and battle-scarred city of Homs. Another border town, Qusair, which rebels had held, fell last year to Assad forces backed by Hezbollah.

Clashes in Tripoli

The battle for Yabrud had coincided since Thursday with sectarian clashes in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, between supporters and opponents of Hezbollah.

On Saturday night a soldier was killed by an anti-tank grenade in Tripoli, said a Lebanese security source as Lebanon's state-run news agency NNA raised the local toll over three days to 12 killed.

The developments follow an announcement by UN chief Ban Ki-moon that international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi would visit Iran.

Ban said it was a bid to get Iran to attend

another Geneva conference

in a "more constructive way."

Talks in January and February in Switzerland between the Syrian regime and the opposition ended in stalemate. No date has been set for a new round of talks.

Demand for weapons

Rebels still control swathes of Syria, mainly its northern regions, as they fight both Assad's regime and al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents that they once welcomed.

Assad's forces hold densely populated areas, including much of Damascus, while trying to protect major towns, roads and access to Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Supplies of "sophisticated weapons" from allies were demanded on Saturday by the opposition Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

Its president, Ahmed al-Jarba, speaking in Istanbul, played down allies' fears that the arms might end up in the hands of radical insurgents.

Lost generation?

On Friday, the UNHCR refugee agency said

more than 9 million Syrians had been displaced

by the three years of conflict. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 146,000 lives had been lost since 2011, when protests degenerated into civil war.

On Saturday, five aid organizations, including the agency UNICEF, said Syria's conflict was close to

ruining the childhoods of a whole generation.

Since 2011, 37,000 babies had been born to fleeing and displaced parents. Every fifth school in Syria had been destroyed or turned into a military facility. Almost 3 million children were receiving next to no regular schooling.

ipj/slk (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AP)

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