BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops advanced in a major rebel-held town near the Lebanese border amid heavy bombardment from warplanes, artillery and tanks as the country's bloody conflict marked its third anniversary Saturday, state media and activists said.
The conflict, which began amid Arab Spring protests across the region, started off as protests that turned into an armed insurgency and eventually became a full-blown civil war that activists say has killed more than 140,000 people and has seen 2 million people flee the country. Peace talks between the government of President Bashar Assad and Syria's divided opposition haven't found a diplomatic solution to the crisis, which has seen sectarian violence rise as Islamic extremists entered the fight.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, vowed in a statement Saturday marking the conflict's third anniversary "to bring down the Assad regime that is the main source of the Syrian people's suffering." The coalition's chief Ahmad al-Jarba attacked Assad's main backer Iran, as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shiite fighters who came from Iraq to fight with government forces. He urged countries backing the opposition "to commit to their promises of giving sophisticated weapons" to rebels.
"We are fighting a brutal war and facing enemies who have no values or morals such as the gangs of (Hezbollah leader Sheik) Hassan Nasrallah ... mercenaries of hypocrisy coming from Iraq all the way to the head of the snake in Tehran," al-Jarba said in a speech in Istanbul. "Oh Syrians: Our revolution will be victorious and the chemical terrorist regime will go. The battle is not long because we have passed the most difficult part."
State media in Syria did not mention the anniversary.
In Beirut, international aid agencies said that every statistic tracking the lives of Syrian children has worsened as the conflict grinds on, warning an entire generation of is at risk.
Suggesting how badly Syria has unraveled, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said an estimated 2.3 million children last year were in need of shelter, food, health care, education or psychological help for the trauma they suffered. That number has nearly doubled to 5.5 million children this year, he said.
"Every one of those numbers has a face. Every one of those numbers is a child who has lost a future, or whose future is at risk," said Lake, who called Saturday "a sad and infuriating anniversary."
The aid groups said little has been done despite a U.N. Security Council resolution last month calling on Syria's warring sides to allow aid deliveries.
"I think we have to be honest. The situation in Syria is getting worse, not better, and it hasn't got better since the security council resolution," said Justin Forsyth of Save the Children. "More people have been killed, more people have fled. In terms of on the ground, changing lives, saving children, we are not even close to getting impact."
On Saturday, Syrian state television said troops advanced in the town of Yabroud, near Syria's border with Lebanon, and now control of much of the area between the two countries.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian air force conducted at least 15 air raids on the town as heavy clashes raged on the town's outskirts. It said at least five opposition fighters were killed fighting government forces backed by Hezbollah members.
Yabroud is the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where Assad's forces have been waging an offensive for months to try to sever rebel supply lines across the porous border.
Hezbollah officials say many of the car bombs that exploded in the group's strongholds in Lebanon over the past months were made in Yabroud. Hezbollah openly joined Syria's civil war last year, fighting along Assad's forces and tipping the battle in its favor in areas close to Lebanon.
Lebanese broadcasters Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah's Al-Manar aired live footage from outside Yabroud showing bombs landing over the city. Al-Manar showed footage of dead men, some of them bearded. It also showed Syrian troops shooting and firing rocket-propelled-grenades at rebels in the area.
One of the Syrian commanders in the area told Al-Mayadeen that troops advanced "hundreds of meters (yards) inside Yabroud." He added that troops captured the nearby Saint Maroun Hill that overlooks Yabroud.
"We will cut supply lines with neighboring countries and the fighters will be besieged in specific areas then wiped out," the officer, who did not give his name, said.
An opposition activist in the area who goes by the name Amer al-Qalamouni denied that troops advanced into Yabroud, saying instead they attacked southeastern parts of the town.
Earlier in the day, the Observatory and Qalamouni said the Yabroud fighting killed a Kuwaiti commander of the al-Qaida-linked Nursa Front late Friday.
Al-Qalamouni and the Observatory said al-Kuwaiti was a key mediator for the release of a dozen nuns earlier this week who were held by rebels.
Also Saturday, Lebanon's state-run National News agency said two rockets, apparently fired by Syrian rebels, struck the Lebanese border villages of Nabi Othman and Labweh, killing one person and wounding two. Syrian rebels have been shelling Lebanese border villages where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.
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