- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Syrian troops pressed an offensive near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, capturing a village from rebels whose forces appear to be collapsing along a key central front, state media and activists said.

Ras al-Ayyn was the latest area in the Qalamoun region to fall to government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. On Sunday, they captured Yabroud, a town that had served for months as a main rebel logistics hub.

“It was a fast and crushing operation,” an unidentified Syrian army officer in Ras Al-Ayn said on state television. “The operation will continue day and night until all terrorists are wiped out,” he said, referring to the rebels. A brigadier general, also unidentified, told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that “tens” of rebels were killed in the village.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops captured the village after fighting several rebel factions - including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front - for two days.

For months, Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the mountainous Qalamoun region, aiming to cut rebel supply lines crossing the porous Lebanese border.

Also Wednesday, Syria criticized Washington for ordering the closure of its diplomatic and consular missions in the United States, requiring all personnel who are not legal U.S. residents to leave the country.

“This American move reveals the real goals of America’s policies against Syria and the interests of Syrian citizens,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement about Tuesday’s decision. “It forms another step of the American support to terrorism and to shedding blood in Syria.”

The American order should not affect Syria’s mission at the United Nations, although the State Department earlier this month already imposed restrictions limiting its ambassador to New York.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry described the American order as an “arbitrary act” that it said came in violation of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.

Syria’s uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people.

Damascus says it is facing a Western conspiracy because of its support for groups opposed to the United States and Israel in the region.

Earlier in the day, Lebanese security officials said Lebanese government troops dismantled roadblocks and reopened a key road to a predominantly Sunni town near the Syrian border.

The officials said the road leading to the town of Arsal reopened Wednesday morning and that reinforcements were sent to secure the area. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters otherwise.

The development comes after days of high tension in the area, where Shiite Hezbollah gunmen and local residents had blocked off the road to the Sunni town of Arsal.

The Shiites blamed the townspeople and Syrian rebels who fled to Arsal for recent rocket fire on their villages and a car bombing that killed three people. The standoff prompted angry Sunnis to close off roads elsewhere around Lebanon on Tuesday.

Also Wednesday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said two rockets fell in the Qaa area, causing damage but no casualties.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog said more than 45 percent of raw materials for Syria’s poison gas and nerve agent program slated for destruction outside the country have been shipped out.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced Wednesday that two shipments were loaded onto cargo ships in recent days at Latakia port.

Syria has missed several deadlines on a timetable agreed last year to eradicate its chemical weapons by June 30, but the government recently pledged to remove all chemicals by the end of April.

The chemicals will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been fitted with equipment to neutralize hundreds of tons of the most toxic chemicals under supervision by OPCW experts.


Associated Press writers Mike Corder in the Hague and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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