Syrian army takes town along north-south highway: state media

BEIRUT Tue Nov 19, 2013 7:30am EST

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's army has pushed rebels out of the southern town of Qara, strengthening its hold on a highway linking the capital to government strongholds along the coast, state media said on Tuesday.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched an offensive on Friday against the town, which sits on the strategic route 80 km (50 miles) north of Damascus in the Qalamoun mountains.

Damascus is particularly keen to secure the highway as it wants to use it to transport chemical agents as part of a U.S. and Russian-backed program to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.

There was no immediate comment from rebels, who use the region around Qara to cross over from Lebanon. But regional news channel Al Mayadeen broadcast images of a reporter walking with Syrian soldiers through Qara's empty streets.

State news agency SANA quoted a military source saying the army "eliminated terrorists' last gatherings and destroyed their weapons". The government always refers to rebels as terrorists.

The reported capture follows army advances around the northern city of Aleppo and in towns circling Damascus as rebels lose ground in the civil war that, the United Nations says, has left more than 100,000 dead.

An estimated 6,000 people have fled Qara into Lebanon, United Nations refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

"Refugees have told us that they spent days living in underground shelters before deciding to flee," he said. "A family of 10 told us they had crammed into a single car on Saturday evening to flee."

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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