BEIRUT Syrian rebels have taken over at least six towns in central Hama province as part of an operation aimed at extending their control south towards President Bashar al-Assad's powerbase in the capital Damascus, a senior commander said on Wednesday.
Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the rebel military command, said most of the rural western section of Hama province, which stretches to the foothills of the mountains which are home to Assads's minority Alawite community, was under the control of the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.
Saadeddine announced the rebel offensive in Hama on Sunday. Assad's opponents already hold much of the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, and are fighting to advance from the southern Damascus suburbs towards the heart of the capital.
"The battle is ongoing. We have freed many areas (of Hama) and we are studying plans to liberate more areas," Saadeddine told Reuters by Skype from inside Syria. "Three-quarters of western rural Hama is under our control."
He said the towns taken by rebels included Latamneh, Helfaya, Kfar Naboudah, Hasraya, Tibat al-Imn and Kfar Zita, and that fighting had also broken out in the city of Hama itself.
Rebels had intended to focus on rural areas before any assault inside the city - the scene of a 1982 crackdown against an armed Islamist uprising which killed at least 10,000 people - but clashes broke out after authorities launched a wave of arrests, possibly in response to the rebel offensive.
The rebel gains could effectively give them control of territory all the way from the northern Turkish border to Hama 180 km (110 miles) to the south.
An activist in Helfaya confirmed that rebels were in control of the town and other parts of Hama province. In Kfar Naboudah he said they took over a grain silo containing 12,000 tonnes of wheat, which they planned to distribute to rebel-held areas.
Residents say bakeries in many parts of Syria are running low on flour, leading to widespread bread shortages.
The Syrian Observatory for Human rights, which monitors violence across the country, said that several of the Hama towns overrun by rebels came under bombardment on Wednesday.
It said at least 100 people were killed across the country, adding to a death toll in the 21-month-old uprising against Assad of more than 40,000 people.
At least 21 people, including 15 rebels, were killed when a car bomb exploded in Aziziyah on the southern approach into Aleppo city, the Observatory said. It was not clear what the bomb was targeting and it may have detonated accidentally. State media had no immediate report on the explosion.
In Damascus, rebels who seized control of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on Monday alongside anti-Assad Palestinian fighters, declared the neighborhood a "liberated area" on Wednesday.
They said they were handing the camp, once a stronghold of the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, over to Palestinian control and urged thousands of residents who had fled in recent days to return.
It was not clear how many would heed the appeal to go back to a district which many fear could face revenge attacks by Assad's forces.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)