Rebels have seized an ancient town in southern Syria that was a key government stronghold, pushing Syrian troops and its allied militiamen out of the region after five days of heavy fighting, opposition activists and rebels said.
The sources said government troops were forced to withdraw on Wednesday from Bosra al-Sham, located near the Jordanian border and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic citadel, ruins and well-preserved Roman theatre.
It was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia and a stopover on caravan routes to Mecca, according to UNESCO.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.
Bosra al-Sham had been in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s troops throughout the four-year-old conflict, and was considered to be a bastion of pro-government forces in Deraa province.
The town’s capture is a strategic gain because of its geographical location as well.
Bosra al-Sham is perched on highlands 10km from the Jordanian border, overlooking the plains that spread out from the southern outskirts of Damascus.
“Today is a happy day, Bosra al-Sham has been completely liberated,” said Ahmad Masalma, an opposition activist in Deraa.
Masalma said about 10,000 rebels from various groups took part in the attack on the town, which began on Saturday from three sides and ended at dawn on Wednesday. They included members of al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, al-Nusra Front.
Amateur videos posted online showed rebels wandering through the ancient citadel and standing in the sunlight on the theatre’s stone stage.
One video showed rebels removing a Hezbollah flag from the site. The Lebanese movement has sent troops to boost Assad’s forces in southern Syria and other parts of the country during the war.
Other fighters fired their guns in celebration near the columned top of the theatre’s imposing, semi-circular seating section.
Masalma said no major damage was done to the citadel or theatre.
The fight for control of Bosra al-Sham, however, left heavy damage in other parts of the town.
Medics said government forces also dropped barrel bombs and fired rockets at Maaraba hospital in a nearby town, where injured rebel fighters were being treated.
“The hospital has been completely levelled to the ground,” Mohammed Ahmed, a doctor at the hospital, told Al Jazeera. “The hospital includes a treatment ward and women’s operation room. It provide services to all civilians from all areas regardless of their affiliations.”
The Bosra al-Sham Hotel, the biggest and best-known hotel in the region, and historic souqs were also destroyed in the fighting.
Other archaeological sites have been looted by various armed groups and criminals over the past two years.
The Syrian government has lost large swaths of territory to opposition fighters and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but continues to hang on to major cities across the country.
Bosra al-Sham is a predominantly Sunni town with a population of about 30,000 but also has a sizable Shia community.
The push on the town coincided with rebel gains in northern Syria on Wednesday near the city of Idlib, where a consortium of rebels launched an offensive a day earlier.
The target of the operation is Idlib, a city of 165,000 people and capital of a province with the same name.