BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops clashed with rebels in a mountainous western region Saturday in what appeared to be an offensive to cut an opposition supply route from Lebanon, forcing hundreds to flee for safety across the border, activists and officials said.
The fighting was concentrated in the rugged Qalamoun region around the towns of Qara, Rima and Nabak, activists and state media said. The battle has been expected for weeks as troops and opposition fighters reinforced their positions ahead of winter, when much of the area is covered with snow.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting had closed the highway linking Damascus with the central city of Homs. It said Syrian warplanes struck rebel held areas around Qara and nearby mountains.
The Observatory added that Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group has deployed thousands of fighters on the Lebanese side of the border in preparation for the battle. Hezbollah's fighters openly joined Syria's civil war earlier this year, tipping the war in favor of government forces mostly in the central province of Homs and in the suburbs of Damascus.
Syria's state-run news agency said troops had killed "tens of terrorists" in attacks on rebel hideouts in areas including Nabak and Rima. The government refers to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad as terrorists.
The Qalamoun region is a main rebel supply route for weapons and fighters from neighboring Lebanon. Government forces appear to be trying to regain control of the whole border with the country.
Hundreds of Syrian men, women and children have crossed the border into the Lebanese town of Arsal seeking refuge from the fighting, the town's former mayor Bassel Hojeiri told The Associated Press by telephone.
"We have a major crisis," Hojeiri said about his hometown, already thronged with thousands of refugees from the past two years of violence in Syria. "Most of those who fled came yesterday from Qara."
The Lebanese army said in a statement that troops captured nine Syrians as they tried to cross into Lebanon carrying weapons and grenades. It said an Algerian was also detained near the border and had no legal permit to stay in Lebanon.
The battle around Qara began Friday, said a rebel activist near the town who goes by the name Abu Yazan. Activists rarely give their real names, fearing identification by Syrian security forces or extremists. He drew his information from friends battling against Assad's forces in the area.
If government troops gain the upper hand, they will be able to cut supplies that flow from Lebanon to rebel-held areas around Damascus, said the Observatory's Rami Abdurrahman.
"The support that comes from Lebanon is for the Qalamoun," said Abu Yazan. He said the clashes were the most violent that had occurred in the area for months.
In eastern Syria, rebel groups seized one of the country's main gas plants in the northeastern city of Deir al-Zour, which supplies power stations feeding much of the country's east, two activists said. Abdurrahman and an Aleppo-based activist who is originally from the city said an alliance of Islamic rebel groups took the facility late Friday. The group is dominated by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, Abdurrahman said.
The Aleppo-based activist, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, sent The Associated Press a statement he said was from the alliance, confirming they had seized the plant. He said other activists in the city also confirmed the incident. The facility obtains its gas from nearby fields and was previously in the hands of tribal gunmen allied with Assad forces.
More than 120,000 people have been killed so far in the war, now in its third year, according to the Observatory, which closely monitors the violence in Syria through a network of activists across the country. The U.N. said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and has not updated that figure since. Millions of Syrians have been uprooted from their homes because of the fighting.
Earlier Saturday, activists said fighters from an al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebel group beheaded an allied commander whom they mistook for a pro-government fighter.
It was the latest excess attributed to the aggressive and radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While allegations of ISIL attacks on civilians and infighting with more moderate rebels are commonplace, this time it appears to have killed a member of another hard-line group, Ahrar al-Sham. While that groups isn't as radical as ISIL, it's still considered to be among the more fundamentalist organizations fighting to overthrow Assad.
The incident happened in the northern city of Aleppo, where two fighters were videotaped displaying the severed head to a crowd on Wednesday, the activists said. The men claimed the head belonged to an Iraqi Shiite fighter allied to the government of Bashar Assad, but residents later recognized it as belonging to a rebel commander.
Activists said the ISIL fighters found the wounded rebel in a hospital after a battle with government forces on Wednesday. As he emerged from anesthesia, he called out the names of saints recognized by Shiites, an Islamic sect whose members have largely sided with Assad, one of the activists said.
Assad is an Alawite, a member of a Shiite offshoot sect, and Shiite militiamen from Lebanon and Iraq have fought alongside his forces against largely Sunni rebels.
The next day, two young ISIL rebels were videotaped brandishing a man's head.
Furious Ahrar al-Sham partisans posted a video calling ISIL fighters "idiots" and noted that rebel fighter Mohammed Marrouche had longish hair and a full bushy beard typical of conservative Sunni Muslims. "The Shiites do not do this," they sarcastically noted. Others posted a video showing Marrouche calling for his group and ISIL to work together.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.