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Published: Saturday March 29, 2014 MYT 6:05:03 PM
Updated: Saturday March 29, 2014 MYT 6:06:02 PM

Syrian forces take two villages near Lebanon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces took control of two villages near the Lebanese border on Saturday after driving out rebels, state media said, helping President Bashar al-Assad secure the route connecting Damascus with Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast.

The fall of Flita and Ras Maara, two of the last rebel bastions in the area, is likely to push militants and refugees over the border into Lebanon, risking further destabilising the Mediterranean country whose own 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

"The Army and Armed Forces restored stability and security to the towns of Ras Maara and Flita ... after getting rid of the fleeing terrorists and destroying their weapons," state news agency SANA said.

The government has been making incremental gains along the highway as well as around Damascus and Aleppo in recent months, regaining the initiative in a conflict which entered its fourth year this month.

Assad needs to secure the route to transport chemical agents out of Syria via the coast, part of an agreement with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to remove Syria's chemicals weapons arsenal.

The war in Syria has already heightened sectarian tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, causing insecurity and political gridlock.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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