BEIRUT // After five weeks of battle, Syrian troops have captured a strategic town near Damascus, cutting a supply route for rebels trying to topple Bashar Al Assad's regime, state media and activists said yesterday.
By taking the town of Otaybah, east of the capital, the army dealt a major setback to opposition forces that in recent months have made gains near the city they hope to storm.
Also yesterday, rare fighting broke out in the tightly controlled central city of Hama between troops and rebels who ambushed an army vehicle and took over a school that the regime was using as a base. At least seven people were killed.
With fresh supplies of weapons from foreign backers, the rebels have recently seized military bases and towns south of the capital in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 160 kilometres away.
The regime has largely kept the rebels at bay in Damascus, although opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital, from which they have threatened the heart of the city, the seat of President Al Assad's power. Last month, government troops launched a campaign to repel the rebel advances near the capital, deploying elite army units to the rebellious suburbs and pounding rebel positions with air strikes.
The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said government troops regained control of Otaybah on Wednesday.
"It's a huge victory for the regime, and a big blow to the opposition that is now in danger of losing other towns and villages around Damascus," Mr Abdul-Rahman said.
The state-run Sana news agency said the army had "restored complete control" over Otaybah. The official news services also said troops "discovered a number of tunnels that were used by terrorists to move and transfer weapons and ammunition".
The regime and state media refer to rebels as terrorists and accuse them of being part of a foreign plot seeking to destroy Syria.
The army was already capitalising on its gains yesterday, pounding southern suburbs of Damascus including the long-contested Daraya area with artillery barrages and air strikes, according to the Observatory. The group relies on a network of activists on the ground that also reported fierce clashes between rebels and army troops to the east of the capital.
Otaybah is located on a road linking Damascus with the eastern suburbs of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta.
Rebels have been using the road to transport weapons and other supplies to the capital. Many of the capital's surrounding towns and neighbourhoods have been opposition strongholds during the two-year-old conflict.
Losing control of the town will make the defence of rebel enclaves in north-eastern suburbs such as Douma, Harasta and others very difficult, Mr Abdul-Rahman said.
In Hama, rebels ambushed and destroyed an army vehicle after a six-hour battle with troops. Amateur videos posted online by activists showed an army vehicle in flames amid sounds of intense gun battles.
Another video showed rebels raising black Islamic flags over the Nasseh Alwani school after "liberating it" from troops who had transformed it into a military base, and what appeared to be the bodies of soldiers burning inside.
Meanwhile, fighting that has laid waste to cities, towns and villages and destroyed some the Syria's rich cultural heritage took its toll on another historical landmark on Wednesday with the destruction of the minaret of the 12th-century Umayyad Mosque in the northern city of Aleppo.