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Syrian government retakes border town in Assad coastal heartland

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces retook Kasab on Sunday, ousting rebels from the village on the Turkish border in the coastal heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority sect, activists and state media said.

The withdrawal of rebel forces - including some linked to al Qaeda - is another strategic and symbolic blow to an opposition that has been undermined by recent gains by Assad's forces and by infighting.

Syrian state news agency SANA said government forces had "restored stability and security" to Kasab and engineering teams were removing mines and explosives planted by "terrorist gangs," the government's customary term for rebels.

State television broadcast images from inside Kasab, a majority Armenian Christian village whose residents had mostly fled ahead of the rebel advance on the area in March.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group tracking events through a network of sources, said rebels had begun withdrawing on Saturday and government forces moved in after clashes with the remaining fighters.

The rebel fighters included some from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Observatory said, adding that Syrian government forces were assisted by the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah. There were no immediate casualty figures.

Syria's coastal areas are the historic homeland of Assad's family and home to many members of his Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shi'ite Islam. The rebels fighting to overthrow Assad are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Rebel forces took Kasab in March. One of Assad's cousins, a militia commander, was killed in fighting in the area. [ID:nL5N0MM3LX]

(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Catherine Evans and Sonya Hepinstall)

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