DAMASCUS, March 6 (Xinhua) -- Syrian troops continued on Thursday their progress against rebels around a key contested town north of the capital Damascus as well as in central Syria, amid a fresh wave of explosions that have killed at least 17 people, Syria's media reported.
The Syrian troops on Thursday fully recaptured Rima Orchards on the outskirts of Yabroud, 80 km north of Damascus, as part of the army's wide-scale operation to secure the surroundings of Yabroud before storming the town, which reportedly houses 10,000 armed rebels.
After Rima Orchards, the military is poised to wrest back control over Flaita and Ras al-Ma'ara, also on the outskirts of Yabroud. It will then complete its imposed siege on that strategic town before storming it.
Yabroud is deemed as an important stronghold of armed rebels due to its location on the slope of the mountainous Qalamoun region and proximity to the Lebanese town of Ersal, where the rebels get weapons and medical treatment.
Also, the town's rugged terrain and ancient caves give them shelter from government air raids.
Military experts said by recapturing Yabroud, the government forces can secure the international road connecting Damascus to the central province of Homs and some provinces on the Mediterranean coast. It could deter the flow of car bombs into neighboring Lebanon.
Kamel Saqer, a political expert, said that at the beginning of their military operation in Yabroud, the Syrian troops have focused on a strategy to control the surrounding hills. They used the overlooking hills as firing plateaus to target the depth of Yabroud and the caves that serve as main hideouts for the rebels.
Saqer said that the battle "is not easy," but "there is a clear and definite decision that Yabroud must go back under the control of the Syrian army." He thinks that achieving this goal is not going to be so close, but also not that far.
Saqer added that the Syrian army has elite forces ready for ground incursion when the "zero hour" is determined.
Meanwhile, Amer al-Qalamouni, spokesman of the oppositional General Body of the Syrian Revolution, said that the strategic town of Yabroud on Thursday was subject to the "heaviest shelling" ever for the past three weeks of battles around it.
Al-Qalamouni said Yabroud was targeted by surface-to-surface missiles and was hit in ten air raids. But he spelled no details about casualties.
TV reports showed that Yabroud is empty of civilians. About 10, 000 rebel fighters are housed there.
While the Syrian forces were on offensives against the rebels, a fresh wave of explosions, mainly in Yabroud, occurred as the rebels' response to the army's advancement.
Two car bombs in the central provinces of Homs and Hama killed at least 17 people on Thursday.
Others were wounded by mortar attacks elsewhere, including in Abu Rummana neighboring Damascus. Embassies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are located there.
But those embassies are already empty, as their diplomatic missions had been withdrawn from Syria in protest against what they called the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters.
Syria's state media accused radical "terrorists" behind the blasts and the mortar attacks, referring to the rebels because they have become overwhelmed with al-Qaida-inspired groups.
Figures show that Syria's three-year-old crisis has claimed lives of more than 100,000 people and displaced millions of others.
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