DAMASCUS — Syrian troops made fresh gains in the strategic Qalamun area near the Lebanese border Saturday, seizing two villages from rebels, a military source told AFP.

“The army took control this morning of the villages of Ras al-Maarra and Flita, after bombing the last groups of armed terrorists there,” the source said.

Bashar Assad’s troops, backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, have been waging a crushing battle against rebel positions in Qalamun, north of Damascus, since November.

They scored a strategic victory in mid-March when they overran Yabrud, a former opposition bastion in the area.

Since then, they have focused on Flita, Ras al-Maarra and other villages in a bid to seal off the border and stop rebels from bringing in weapons and fighters from Lebanon.

At the same time, Hezbollah has said its goal in backing Assad’s troops was to stop a flow of car bombs into Lebanon that it said were being prepared in Yabrud.

The military source said the latest advance “is a new step towards closing off the border with Lebanon.”

Though the takeover of Flita and Ras al-Maarra has not completely sealed off the border, “any success… helps seal the border more tightly, at least at the main crossing points that (the rebels use) to transport vehicles,” he added.

The latest advance comes a day after the air force dropped highly destructive barrel bombs on Flita, and after the head of the rebel Military Council Ahmad Nawaf Durra was killed in fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.