BEIRUT: Syrian troops captured a western town near the country's main north-south highway on Monday as the government forged ahead with a punishing offensive in a mountainous region near the border with Lebanon, state media said.
According to the reports, the troops took full control of Nabek a day after taking the nearby highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the central city of Homs. The highway is critical for the overland transport of Syria's chemical weapons to a port from where the arms would be shipped for destruction abroad or at sea.
But Syrian activists disputed the state media reports and said the rebels still hold part of Nabek. The area has strategic value for both sides in Syria's conflict, now in its third year. The highway serves as a crucial link between Damascus and the country's north, as well as government strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said last week it would consider using the road to transport the chemical weapons to the port of Latakia.
Syrian state TV said President Bashar Assad's army took Nabek on Monday morning after "a series of precise operations." Troops are still pursuing "terrorists" on the town's outskirts, the TV said, using the government term for opposition forces fighting to topple Assad.
The TV aired a live report from Nabek's main square, showing a reporter surrounded by dozens of people waving Syrian flags. Most of the buildings shown in the footage appeared intact and at least one was decorated with the Syrian flag, which covered it from the roof all the way to the ground.
The broadcast showed a young Syrian woman, saying to the reporter: "May God protect our Syrian soldiers. I feel safe now."
Another woman says the townspeople suffered from lack of food and water since the fighting began three weeks ago. "We lived very difficult 20 days," she says.
Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government controls most of Nabek but that fighting was still going on around the town.
Over the past days, the area has seen heavy clashes between the Syrian army, backed by its Lebanese Hezbollah allies, and Islamist rebels, including many from an al-Qaida-linked group.
The fighting had closed the highway for 19 days but the Syrian troops reopened the road on Sunday, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, Syria's local and international telephone lines and the Internet went down for about for 2 ½ hours on Monday because of "technical problems," state TV said. The station later reported that technicians fixed the problem on the main fiber-optic cable. Calls started getting through to Syria shortly after 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) Monday.
Canadian network monitoring firm BGPmon said Syria was hit by a countrywide Internet outage on Monday affecting more than 90 percent of the nation's networks. The monitoring firm did not say what had caused the outage.
Syria has had several cuts in telephone lines and the Internet since its crisis began in March 2011.