BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday seized an ancient town near the Jordan border that is a key government stronghold, ousting Syrian soldiers and allied militiamen from the region after four days of intense battles, opposition activists and rebels said.
There was no immediate comment from the government on the fall of Busra Sham, a town in southern Syria classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic citadel, ruins and well-preserved Roman theater. It was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia and a stopover on caravan routes to Mecca, according to UNESCO.
Busra Sham had been in the hands of President Bashar Assad's troops throughout the four-year-old conflict and was considered to be a stronghold of pro-government forces in the southern province of Daraa.
The town's capture is a strategic gain because of its geographical location as well. Busra Sham is perched on highlands 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the Jordan border, overlooking the plains that spread out from the southern outskirts of Damascus.
"Today is a happy day, Busra Sham has been completely liberated," said Ahmad Masalma, an opposition activist in Daraa. He said some 10,000 rebels from various groups took part in the attack on the town, which began Saturday from three sides and ended at dawn Wednesday. They included members of al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.
An amateur video posted online showed rebels wandering through the ancient citadel and standing in the sunlight on the theater's stone stage. Other fighters fired their guns in celebration near the columned top of the theater's imposing, semi-circular seating section.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting.
Masalma said it was in the citadel that Syrian government forces made their last stand before finally withdrawing. He said no major damage was done to the citadel or theater.
However, the Busra Sham Hotel — the biggest and best-known hotel in the region — and nearby historic souks were destroyed in the fighting, Masalma said. Other archaeological sites had been looted by various armed groups and criminals over the past two years.
The town's capture was also reported by the Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The capture of Busra Sham is a tiny conquest for the rebels in the context of the civil war in Syria, where more than 220,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. The Syrian government — deeply associated with Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam — has lost large swaths of territory to the Sunni-dominated rebels and Islamic militants, but continues to hang on to major cities across the country.
Busra Sham is a predominantly Sunni town with a population of about 30,000 but also has a sizable Shiite community. The push on the town coincided with rebel gains in northern Syria on Wednesday near the city of Idlib, where a consortium of rebels launched an offensive a day earlier.
The target of the operation is Idlib, a city of 165,000 people and capital of a province with the same name. Opposition fighters have controlled the countryside and towns across the province since 2012, but Assad's forces have maintained their grip on Idlib city.
Activists said rebel fighters made advances from the city's eastern side, seizing three government checkpoints. The Observatory said at least 20 rebels had been killed in the fighting. Among the dead was a senior leader in the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel group known as Abu Jamil Qatab, according to the Observatory and photos posted online.
There was no word on government casualties.
Separately, the Syrian government and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said authorities have released some 350 detainees from several provinces. It was not clear whether those freed Tuesday included any activists or political opponents of the government.
Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.