BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and fighters from Lebanese ally Hezbollah stepped up attacks on Syria's strategic border town of Yabroud on Wednesday, activists said, in apparent preparation for a new offensive to flush out rebels.

The assault is the latest step in Assad and Hezbollah's campaign to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border region and fortify the president's hold on central Syria, from the capital Damascus to his stronghold on the coast.

Pro-government media said the army seized the nearby village al-Jarajeer, while the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad's forces had advanced on the area but had not completely taken it.

More than 13 air strikes had already hit the mountain border town on Wednesday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, as overnight clashes between Assad's forces and the opposition on the outskirts of Yabroud continued into the morning.

"The attacks were sharply intensified but it is unclear if the offensive on Yabroud has started or if this is paving the way for a main attack," said Observatory head Rami Abdelrahman.

Arab news channel Al Meyadeen described the attacks as the start of a wider military offensive. It said Assad's forces were positioning themselves on hilltops outside Yabroud in preparation for attack.

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