Syrian government forces have captured the strategically important town of Halfaya where al-Nusra Front had been massing forces, the army has said.

The army on Thursday also said it had secured nearby areas close to Hama military airport, driving back an offensive by fighters whose advance had threatened several government loyalist towns populated mostly by minority Christians and Alawites. 

Halfaya, north west of Hama province, was taken by government forces after days of fighting with the al-Qaeda linked group, al-Nusra Front, which is known to be active in Hama and towns surrounding it.

Dozens of fighters from both sides have been killed in the week of fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights said.

Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said  al-Nusra Front fighters had staged a sudden withdrawal from Halfaya.

"In the last week they called in other fighters because they couldn't continue," he said.

The gains helped strengthen government control of a key corridor of territory stretching north from Damascus to the coast including the heartlands of the minority Alawite sect which forms President Bashar al-Assad's power base.

The army command said in a statement that the offensive aims "to wipe out terrorists in northern parts of Hama.''

It added that "a large number of terrorists were killed in the fighting, many of them foreign fighters as well as a large number of their vehicles and weapons being destroyed".

The Observatory along with local activists said the army offensive was commanded by one of Syria's best known officers, Colonel Suheil Al-Hassan also known as 'the tiger'.

Meanwhile al-Nusra Front said their leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani, had been leading the offensive in Halfaya.

The group have been behind attacks in recent weeks on the historic Christian town of Mahradeh, which is west of Halfaya.

Source: Agencies