BEIRUT Syrian forces went on the offensive on Saturday against rebels positioned along a major highway linking the capital with the coast, rebels said, a strategic road that is likely to be used to extract chemical weapons from the country.
The road passes through the mountainous area of Qalamoun, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus, a region that stretches along the Lebanese border and is one of Syria's most heavily militarized districts.
Captain Islam Alloush, spokesman for the Army of Islam, the largest alliance of rebel groups in the capital, said that fighting was intense in the small highway town of Qara.
"There are a large number of our fighters stationed along the road," he said.
Diplomats say Syrian authorities have identified the road north from Damascus towards Homs and the coast as the preferred route to transport chemical agents under a U.S.-Russian accord to eliminate them from the country's protracted civil war.
Although the army and civilians use the highway, parts of it go near rebel-held areas and convoys are prone to ambushes. The authorities have asked for equipment to help secure convoys.
Observers expect the next big battle in Syria to center on the Qalamoun area, causing a huge exodus of refugees and stirring up anger in nearby Lebanon as Shi'ite Lebanese Hezbollah fighters take part in the fighting.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group that uses a network of pro- and anti-Assad sources, said the fighting in Qara and the nearby town of Nabek was "a sign that the operation in Qalamoun has started."
Observatory head Rami Abdelrahman said that Hezbollah militants were mobilizing on Saturday to fight in Qalamoun.
United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said there were reports from the Lebanese side of the border that 600-800 refugee families had arrived from Qara at the Lebanese border village of Al-Qaa, escaping the offensive.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Friday night adopted a step-by-step plan to get rid of 1,300 tonnes of Syria's sarin, mustard gas and other agents.
The Damascus spokeswoman for the joint OPCW-UN chemical weapons team, Sausan Ghosheh, said the mission would not disclose what route it would use to extract the chemicals but said the "the Syrian authorities have developed a security plan for the transportation of these materials."
Faced with the threat of U.S. missile strikes, Assad in September agreed to destroy his entire chemical weapons stockpile following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus on August 21.
Washington said only Assad's forces could have carried out the attack, a charge the Syrian leader denied.
But the mission hit a snag on Friday when Albania rejected a U.S. request to host the destruction of the most critical chemical in Syria's arsenal.
Ghosheh said that although the deadlines are tight, Albania's decision should not immediately delay the destruction program, which started in October.
"There are still steps on the group to be taken," she said.
She said the team was now training Syrian personnel on how to package and handle the chemical agents safely.
After 2-1/2 years of war, which started when Assad's forces fired on pro-democracy protests, the fighting has settled into a broad stalemate in which more than 100 are killed every day.
More than 100,000 have died since the start of the conflict, the United Nations says, and millions more are displaced.
(Editing by Toby Chopra)