BEIRUT - Syrian troops backed by war planes battled on Monday to dislodge Islamist rebels from a border crossing and northern town in the coastal province of Latakia, heartland of President Bashar Assad's Alawite minority.
Fighters from the Islamic Front and al Qaida-linked Nusra Front seized the Armenian Christian town of Kasab on Sunday after taking the nearby border crossing in an offensive which follows a string of recent rebel defeats further south.
Video footage released by activists showed fighters driving through the largely deserted Kasab, passing a municipal building and a shattered statue of Bashar's father Hafez, who ruled Syria for 30 years until 2000.
While the rebel advance has gained only a small pocket of territory, it has put Assad on the defensive and deprived him - at least for now - of the last border crossing from Turkey into government-held territory.
It follows months of advances by Assad's troops and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters near the capital Damascus and the Lebanese border, choking rebel supply lines and reasserting control of central Syria as the civil war enters a fourth year.