Syrian Crisis: Syrian rebels advance in northern Hama province

Syrian rebels advance in northern Hama province

Syrian rebels have captured a strategic town in northern Hama province in a major offensive that threatens Assad regime’s loyalist towns north of the provincial capital, rebels and a monitor said on Tuesday.

The town of Halfaya was stormed on Monday after the Jund al-Aqsa group alongside Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades launched a battle overnight that overran several Assad regime and pro-regime checkpoints in northern Hama countryside.

The town, which is near the main road that links the coastal areas with the Aleppo-Damascus highway is only a few kilometers from the historic town of Mahrada to the west.

“We are now cleansing the town after liberating it from the regime and will have more surprises in store,” said Abu Kinan, a commander in Jaish al Ezza, a rebel group that fought in the town.

A rapid collapse in government defenses allowed the rebels to also take a string of villages including Buwaydah, Zalin, and Masassnah. They were threatening Taybat al-Imam to the east of Halfaya.

The offensive brought them closer to the Assad regime stronghold of Soran, the regime forces’ northern gateway to the city of Hama, the provincial capital.

A Syrian military source said airstrikes conducted by the Assad regime air force killed dozens of rebels and would neither deny nor confirm Halfaya had fallen to rebels. Pro-regime websites said the regime was sending reinforcements to retake these towns.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which confirmed the fall of the town, said jets believed to be Syrian struck rebel outposts in the area, killing at least 20 rebels.

The militant Jund al-Aqsa group deployed suicide bombers to storm Assad regime forces’ checkpoints.

Jaish al Ezza threatened in a statement to hit the Mahrada power plant near the town, one of Syria’s largest, if civilians areas in rebel-held areas were bombed in retaliation.

The rebel offensive comes after weeks of heavy Russian and Assad regime’s bombing of rebel-controlled Hama and southern Idlib countryside that rebels say has claimed dozens of civilian lives.

Assad regime’s offensives backed by heavy Russian air strikes to retake territory from rebels in the Hama countryside have had limited success.

The latest gains will consolidate rebels who captured at the end of last year the strategic town of Morek, north of Hama city on a major north-south highway crucial to control of western Syria.