Syrian troops capture key central town
BEIRUT (AP) — Government forces have captured a central Syrian town that has changed hands several times during the civil war, the military and activists said Friday.
By retaking the town of Halfaya in Hama province, troops will be better positioned to defend nearby Christian and Allawite communities that support President Bashar Assad. Central Syria is a communal patchwork, with large communities of Christians, Ismailis and Allawites, who mainly back Assad, himself an Allawite, and fear Sunni extremists among the rebels.
The al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front is known to be active in Hama province and has been behind attacks in recent weeks on the historic Christian town of Mahradeh, which is west of Halfaya.
The latest victory by government forces came two days after President Barack Obama said for the first time that he would authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group. Syria has criticized Obama’s move because it was excluded from a coalition coming together in the battle against the extremist group.
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.”
Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said Halfaya was captured by the army on Thursday.
Abdurrahman and a Hama-based activist who goes by the name of Yazan Shahdawi said the army offensive was commanded by one of Syria’s best-known officers, Col. Suheil al-Hassan, who is also known as “The Tiger.”
Al-Hassan is said to be one of Assad’s favorite soldiers. In May he led a force that was able to lift a monthslong siege imposed by rebels on the central prison of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and onetime commercial center. Last year, his forces captured the strategic town of Khanaser between central regions and Aleppo.
The army’s next target appears to be the rebel strongholds of Kfar Zeita and Morek, which are on the highway that links Hama with Aleppo, Shahdawi said.
Syrian state media and activists said in April that Kfar Zeita was subjected to a poison gas attack that wounded scores of people. The government and the rebels blamed each other for the attack.
Also on Friday, the Observatory said the death toll from government air raids on the Damascus suburb of Douma rose to 42, including seven children.
Abdurrahman said several funerals were held in the suburb on Friday amid intense shelling by government forces.