BEIRUT (AP) — Government forces and their allies advanced Monday in the central province of Hama under the cover of intense airstrikes, approaching the outskirts of a rebel-held town a day after capturing a strategic town from opposition fighters and militants, Syria's state media and opposition activists said.
The push toward the town of Tibet al-Imam came a day after troops and pro-government militiamen captured the town of Soran, a month after Soran was lost in a rebel offensive. The government appears to be aiming to secure areas north of the city of Hama, the country's fourth largest.
Insurgents, including members of al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, launched a wide offensive on parts of Hama province last month capturing several villages and towns. The government launched a wide counteroffensive under the cover of Russian and Syrian airstrikes regaining control of the whole area lost and pushing ahead toward other villages.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian air force jets had conducted nearly 25 airstrikes on Tibet al-Imam and nearby villages since midnight.
Syrian state news agency SANA quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops are now at the eastern entrance of Tibet al-Imam after capturing nearby hills under the cover of intense bombardment.
Earlier on Monday, the Observatory and Syrian-based opposition activist Taher al-Omar said members of the Levant Liberation Committee captured several army checkpoints near the central town of Salamiyeh. The Observatory and state media said government forces regained control of the checkpoints hours later.
Meanwhile, the fate of an operation to evacuate thousands of Syrians from besieged cities loyal to both the government and the opposition was cast in doubt.
Near Damascus, a group of buses slated to evacuate rebel gunmen from the town of Zabadani pulled out of town without any passengers, a local resident said.
"They've filled in the dirt berm at the entrance to the town," said Amer Burhan, the director of Zabadani's only remaining hospital. He was scheduled to be evacuated with the rest of the town's 160 remaining inhabitants, who are mostly fighters.
The evacuation has been postponed repeatedly since it was originally scheduled for April 4. It is tied to simultaneous evacuations from two pro-government towns in northern Syria that have been held under siege by rebels. Zabadani is besieged by government forces.
Fears over the safety of evacuees appears to be the cause for the latest delay. A car bomb blast at the exchange point in northern Syria on Saturday killed at least 120 people, most of them government supporters. There were 80 children among the dead. No one claimed the attack.
Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines.