BEIRUT (AP) — President Bashar Assad's forces killed at least 18 rebels in central Syria in clashes near the country's main north-south highway, activists said Tuesday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting took place overnight in Hama province near the town of Morek, which straddles the major road that links the capital, Damascus, with the largely rebel-held northern provinces.
Since last year, the government has been battling rebels for control of the highway, which the regime wants to keep open so it can resupply its forces bogged down in fighting in the contested city of Aleppo and elsewhere in northern Syria. The opposition wants to cut the route to prevent supplies and reinforcements from reaching those troops.
The fighting is part of the broader battle in Syria's civil war for control of the country's north. Over the past year, the rebels have pried free most of the northern countryside from the regime, while the government still holds the provincial capitals, with the exception of Raqqa and parts of Aleppo.
Last week, opposition fighters captured a major air base in the north near the border with Turkey and swept through a string of villages in the heartland of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast. Those advances were some of the most significant rebel gains in months against government forces, which have been on the offensive in central Syria and around Damascus.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country's revolt began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests. The conflict slowly shifted into a civil war that has destroyed many of the nation's cities, forced millions from their homes and shattered the economy.
Russia and the United States, which support opposing sides in the conflict, have been trying to coax the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition to the negotiating table for peace talks in Geneva, although the conference has been repeatedly postponed.
Late Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told Russia's Interfax news agency that a peace conference is unlikely to go ahead before October.
"It's unlikely to happen in September because of other events including the ministerial week at the U.N. General Assembly," Gatilov said. "We would like to see it happen as soon as possible, but you have to be realistic about circumstances that could affect that summit."
Even then, it's unclear whether Russia and the U.S. will be able to force the two sides to sit down together for talks.
Last month, the head of the main Western-backed opposition coalition said the group will not take part in any peace negotiations until rebels gain the upper hand on the battlefield.