Syrian forces captured Saturday a rebel-held town near a famed Crusader castle in the strategic province of Homs, after nearly a month of fighting, the army said.
“Syrian army units, in cooperation with the National Defence Force and honourable residents, took full control of the town of Zara and its surroundings in the western Homs countryside,” a statement said.
The military said the town is strategic because of its location on the road linking central Syria to the Mediterranean coast.
Zara was also used as a “key passageway for terrorist groups coming from Lebanon,” the statement added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the capture, saying Zara, near the Krak des Chevaliers castle, fell a day after it was hit by air strikes.
The Observatory said the town, which is mostly inhabited by the Sunni Turkmen minority, was taken after “fierce fighting between loyalist troops and fighters from Jund al-Sham and other Islamist groups.”
The monitoring group, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, said there were casualties on both sides but did not give any figures.
The capture of Zara — which lies west of Homs city — comes as the army battles rebels further south around Yabrud, an opposition stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains close to the Lebanese border.
The fighting is part of an army offensive launched late last year also to secure the Damascus-Homs highway and to severe a key rebel supply route to the town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
On Saturday, the army renewed attacks on Yabrud with barrel bombs, activists said.
They distributed amateur video showing clouds of smoke rising above the town, the largest in the Qalamoun mountains.
Rights groups have regularly lashed out as indiscriminate the air force’s use of barrel bombs, which have killed hundreds across Syria in recent months.
Meanwhile, state news agency SANA said troops destroyed an ammunition and explosive devices warehouse and killed many “terrorists,” the regime term for rebels, at the northern and eastern entrances to Yabrud.
The reports come a day after at least 25 rebels and jihadists, as well as 11 soldiers and a member of Lebanon’s Hezbollah were killed in fighting around Yabrud, said the Observatory.