By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Syria's armed forces said onFriday they had captured a strategic northern town at theeastern gates of Aleppo, the former commercial hub long thescene of fierce fighting between government and rebel fighters.
The town of Safira lies on a road the army said would beused to send in medicine and supplies to government-controlledareas of Aleppo, mired in a bloody stalemate for over a year. Itis also the site of a chemical weapons installation undergovernment control and cleared of equipment.
The capture of Safira is significant in that it marks arare victory for Assad's forces near the mostly rebel-heldnorth. Opposition groups confirmed the army's seizure of thecity, southeast of Aleppo.
"Our heroic armed forces gained full control over the townof Safira after a series of strategic operations... Theimportance of this new success for our armed forces is due toits strategic importance at the eastern gates of Aleppo," aspokesman for the Syrian army said in a televised statement.
The conflict in Syria, now more than 2-1/2-years old, haslong been in stalemate but Assad's forces have been making slowadvances in the centre of the country and near the capital sincethey captured a strategic border town near Lebanon with the helpof the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saidthe government had seized the town on Friday morning after morethan three weeks of fighting.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW), which has teams in Syria to eliminate the country'schemical weapons arsenal, has said its teams were unable toreach two sites for inspection because they were too dangerous.
A source briefed on their operations said one of those siteswas at Safira.
The chemical weapons site itself has been under governmentcontrol but emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby,according to the OPCW.
ASSAD ADVANCES ON REBEL AREAS
Further south, fighting took place in and around the capitalDamascus where the government has launched an offensive inrecent months to retake rebel-held suburbs.
The Observatory said the rural town of Sbeneh, 6 km (4miles) south of Damascus, faced shelling and clashes betweenrebels and government forces supported by pro-Assad militias,Hezbollah fighters and other foreign fighters.
The attack is part of government attempt to retake ruraltowns outside Damascus by heavy shelling from afar inconjunction with a slow but creeping blockade that has preventedfood or supplies from entering the area.
Rebel-held districts on the edge of the capital, some undersiege for nearly a year, have been at the forefront of theuprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for fourdecades.
The next front in the war is expected to centre on themountainous Qalamoun area, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north ofDamascus, less than 10 km (6 miles) from the Lebanese border.
One of Syria's most heavily militarised districts, Qalamounis vital to Assad's control of the route from Damascus to theLatakia coast, a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect.
Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population has largelysupported the uprising, while Alawites have generally stood withAssad.
Diplomats said a hospital in Qalamoun was evacuated onFriday while the University of Qalamoun closed on Thursday. Amessage on the university's website cited maintenance to thewater system for the 10-day closure.
Fighting has sometimes damaged water and sanitationinfrastructure, but activists in Damascus suspected thegovernment is preparing to use the campus as a military base.
- Politics & Government
- Unrest, Conflicts & War