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Syrian Government Forces Seize Rebel Stronghold

FILE - A boy runs over rubble at a site hit by what activists say were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the rebel-controlled area of Deir al-Asafir town, near Damascus, March 11, 2015.

Syrian government forces and allied militias penetrated an opposition bastion east of Damascus Thursday, in a swift advance that threatened to disrupt a years-long stalemate around the Syrian capital.

Air and missile strikes pounded rebel positions in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, clearing the way for soldiers and Hezbollah militants to take the iconic opposition stronghold of Deir al-Asafir and other villages, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The advance displaced hundreds of families, the Observatory said.

Syrian state media, which also reported many of the advances, said the army took advantage of rebel infighting in the eastern Ghouta pocket to make its strike. Around 500 militants have been killed in three weeks of infighting, according to the Observatory.

Opposition groups expelled government forces from Deir al-Asafir in 2012.

The Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which has depended on the Syrian government for support since the 1980s, has lost over 1,000 fighters defending President Bashar al-Assad's administration, including many of its top leaders.

The militia blamed rebels for artillery shelling that killed its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine last week. He was slain near Damascus airport, close to eastern Ghouta. Rebel groups have not claimed responsibility. The Observatory denied the reports of shelling.