BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces seized the strategic northern town of Ariha on Tuesday, an opposition group said, in a move that would open the supply line between the coastal stronghold and pockets of army control in a region that is largely rebel controlled.
Other activists, however, said the battle was not over and that rebels were still fighting the regime in Ariha, located near a major highway in the northern province of Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported the Assad military gain, said loyalist paramilitary forces, known as the National Defence Forces, stormed and captured Ariha under the cover of a fierce army artillery assault.
“This allows the regime in (coastal) Latakia to reconnect the land routes between them and their forces in Idlib province, which were under strain in an area surrounded by rebel forces,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Britain-based Observatory.
He said the army was now pummeling other nearby towns and mountainous territories where rebels may be based in an effort to cement control of the area.
Syria’s 2-1/2-year conflict between Assad’s forces and the rebels seeking to oust him has killed over 110,000 people, most of them civilians, according to the Observatory, which uses a network of activists across the country.
Some activists in Idlib said Assad’s military had not yet captured the town, with air strikes and fierce clashes raging; but they were not optimistic the opposition would be able to push back the army.
“They still haven’t taken it. But they will. They’ve seized a large piece and they’ll slowly advance if the situation stays like this,” said Ahmad, an activist living in the province, speaking by Skype. “They’ve been using air strikes and have reduced much of the town to rubble.”
Other activists in the area reported seeing large numbers of Assad forces being moved in the direction of Ariha.
Assad’s forces in recent months have gained ground in central Syria and around the capital Damascus, but have made no major dent in rebel control of large swathes of northern or eastern Syria.
The army has threatened a new campaign in the north but so far there has been no major assault. Instead, they appear to be trying to bolster their pockets of territory and slowly build up their forces.
Activists say civilian residents have mostly fled Ariha in the past weeks, due to the heavy air and artillery strikes. According to the Observatory, NDF forces began raiding and looting the town after storming it.
Ariha has been in and out of rebel control. It was taken by Islamist rebel brigades, including the domestic Ahrar al-Sham group and other units linked to al Qaeda, on August 24.
Reporting by Erika Solomon; editing by Ralph Boulton