The Syrian army and allied forces have advanced against rebels in western Syria near Hama city, building on recent strategic gains in the area, a military source and a monitoring group said.
Government forces on Sunday captured the town of Halfaya and nearby villages, taking back territory that rebels seized last year from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
“We gained control of Halfaya and several hills in the area,” a Syrian military source told Reuters news agency.
Boosted by Russian air strikes and Iranian-backed militias, the Syrian army has pushed into rebel areas north of Hama, expanding its control this week along the western highway that links Damascus and Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitoring group, said the army began advancing into areas near Halfaya when rebels withdrew on Sunday, following intense battles and air strikes.
Sources on the rebel side could not immediately be reached for comment.
Warplanes have pounded Halfaya and swaths of territory near the highway in a region vitally important to Assad’s government, which has shored up its rule in the populated west of the country.
Rebel factions, spearheaded by hardline fighters from the former al-Qaeda affiliate and including Free Syrian Army groups, have been fighting fiercely to defend the towns in recent days.
The army’s earlier capture of Soran, its northern gateway to Hama city, meant it had reversed most of the territorial gains rebels made in their major offensive last month.
With the help of its allies, the government has gained the upper hand in the six-year war against the wide array of rebels, including some groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.
The Syrian Central Military Media said government forces pushed deeper into the rebel-held neighbourhood of Qaboun in the capital, capturing a mosque on a main road. The Syrian Observatory reported intense clashes in the area.
The latest advances came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sent a cable to the Syrian leader on the occasion of Syria’s April 17 Independence Day.
“We count on your country’s involvement and effective contribution to help build a stronger United Nations organisation and move our efforts forward to ensure peace, development, and human rights for all people,” the letter said, according to a copy released by Assad’s office.
Assad’s government still holds the country’s seat at the UN, unlike the 22-member Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2012.
Elsewhere in Syria over the weekend, a fighter jet attacked a makeshift hospital set up in a cave in the northern province of Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was not immediately clear whether the strike was carried out by a Russian or Syrian jet.
“Five staff members were wounded and were pulled from the rubble, but four more are still trapped beneath it,” Abdel Rahman said.
Idlib province is controlled by an alliance of rebel fighters that includes a former affiliate of al-Qaeda, and is regularly targeted by both the Syrian government and its Russian allies.