Syrian forces battle rebels near Turkey border crossing

Smoke rises after what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the northern entrance to the city of Aleppo March 23, 2014

(Reuters) – 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 al-Assad’s Alawite minority.

Fighters from the Islamic Front and al Qaeda-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.