BEIRUT: Rebel forces took control of a strategic town in northern Syria Monday, cutting off government forces’ only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based monitoring group also said it had obtained a photograph showing the execution of Alawite preacher Badr Ghazal by hard-line Islamist rebels, highlighting the growing sectarian bloodshed of the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
The Observatory, which opposes President Bashar Assad’s rule, said rebels took control of Khanasir, a town that sits on the government supply route connecting Aleppo with the central city of Hama.
The rebel gain will leave government forces besieged in Aleppo province, the Observatory said.
Rebels had in recent days captured several villages in Aleppo province, much of which is already in the hands of anti-regime fighters, before reaching Khanasir.
Pro-government daily Al-Watan confirmed in a report that rebels had cut the route, saying that it was the “only avenue of transport” between the two regions since Aleppo international airport was closed in January because of the intense fighting in the town.
The newspaper said the insurgents cut the road “after having brought 2,000 armed men, many of whom are not Syrian.”
“Armed men placed mines along the highway, in regions they had infiltrated and fired on lorries and buses, killing dozens of travelers,” Al-Watan said.
Further south, residents in the central province of Homs said rebels also tried Monday to retake the strategic town of Tal Kalakh, 4 km from Lebanon’s northern border. Its capture would allow rebels in the Homs countryside to replenish their supplies.
For weeks, Assad’s forces had been on the offensive in Homs, a province they consider vital to securing their hold from Damascus to the president’s coastal stronghold. The coast is home to a large number of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, who mostly support the president.
But the advance near Tal Kalakh and the purported assassination of an Alawite preacher suggest the rebels are tentatively trying to push back in central Syria.
Sectarian violence has increasingly overtaken a conflict that began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but has now become an all-out civil war.
Syria’s Sunni majority has largely supported the uprising and hard-line Islamist groups among the rebels have increasingly threatened Alawites in retaliation for the killing of Sunnis.
The sectarian dimension of the conflict has drawn in foreign fighters from neighboring countries. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has sent men to fight alongside Assad’s forces, angering Sunnis in Lebanon and the region.
Some Syrians were sceptical about the purported killing of the Alawite preacher Ghazal, saying there was still no definitive proof. It was not immediately possible to independently verify the report because of the restrictions imposed on foreign media.
Either way, the alleged killing or capture of Ghazal in Latakia province is a symbolic threat to Alawites on the coast, whose heavily fortified region has largely been spared the violence raging in most of the country.
The Observatory said rebels from the Nusra Front shot Ghazal after he was kidnapped by rebels in the northern suburbs of Latakia earlier this month. It was not clear when the execution had occurred.
In Damascus, four mortar bombs hit the historic Old City, wounding several people and damaging an Armenian church, state news channel Al-Ikhbariya reported.
Damascus’s Old City, a world heritage site, has escaped the worst of the fighting, but has been damaged by a number of clashes. Many other historic sites have been looted or destroyed during the country’s civil war.