DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government troops captured a key town near the Lebanese border from rebels on Tuesday, days after launching a broad offensive in the mountainous western region, state media and activists said.
The attack on Qara began Friday morning in what appeared to be an operation aimed at cutting off rebel supply lines to Lebanon.
The Qara route is particularly important to rebels entrenched in suburbs around Damascus, and also lies on the main north-south highway linking the capital to government strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
State TV reported that troops are now "in full control of Qara after wiping out all terrorist units in it." The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition fighters as terrorists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that government troops control the town. It said the rebels, including members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, had withdrawn.
But Nusra Front fighters and members of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant vowed to return to Qara soon, the Observatory said.
A reporter for the private Lebanon-based satellite channel Al-Mayadeen who is embedded with the Syrian army reported from inside the town that troops had begun dismantling mines and explosives planted by the rebels. The channel showed soldiers on patrol searching for booby traps.
The border offensive is part of a larger government push that started last month and has taken several objectives, including a string of opposition-held suburbs south of Damascus as well as two towns and a military base around the northern city of Aleppo.
Qara, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Damascus, has borne the brunt of the offensive so far. On Monday, government warplanes and artillery pounded the town and surrounding countryside, according to the Observatory, which uses a network of activists to monitor the conflict.
Rebels have responded with shelling into Damascus, with mortar rounds hitting almost every day over the past two weeks leaving dozens of people dead or wounded.
The state-run news agency SANA reported that a mortar round hit the wall of the capital's historic Ummayad Mosque in the old quarter of the Damascus, causing material damage but no casualties.
Also Tuesday, Russia's foreign minister said the main Western-backed Syrian opposition has agreed to take part in talks in Moscow. Sergey Lavrov told Tuesday's briefing that the Syrian National Coalition will attend the talks with other Syrian opposition groups.
Lavrov wouldn't say when the talks are set to be held. He added that the coalition chief, Ahmad al-Jarba, said he couldn't visit Moscow himself at the time when the talks are planned, but remains open for future contacts.
Russia has proposed to host the talks as part of diplomatic efforts to help convene a Syrian peace conference in Geneva. Lavrov said that the National Coalition's acceptance of the offer is a positive step that signals that the opposition is getting "more realistic."
Mroue reported from Beirut.