BEIRUT - Rebel forces took control of a strategic town in
northern Syria on Monday, killing more than 50 pro-government fighters and
cutting off government forces' only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based Observatory
also said it had obtained a photograph showing the execution of Alawite cleric
Badr Ghazal by hardline Islamist rebels, highlighting the growing sectarian
bloodshed of the 2-1/2-year conflict In Aleppo, rebels led by Islamist militant
groups captured Khanasir, a town that sits on the government supply route
connecting the northern province to the central city of Hama.
gain will leave government forces besieged in Aleppo province, according to the
Observatory, which opposes President Bashar al-Assad's rule. The move hampers
Assad's forces options for counterattack against the large swathes of rebel held
territory in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
head of the Observatory, told Reuters dozens of fighters from the paramilitary
National Defence Forces (NDF) were killed. He said activists had so far counted
53 bodies, including that of the leader of the NDF's Aleppo-based
The NDF is a volunteer force that likens itself to the army's
reserve units. Its fighters generally stay in their own regions and have taken
on the bulk of ground battles against the rebels, leaving Assad's more elite
military forces to organise artillery and air strikes.
residents in the central province of Homs said rebels also tried on Monday to
retake the strategic town of Talkalakh, 4 km (2.5 miles) from Lebanon's northern
border. Its capture would allow rebels in the Homs countryside to replenish
For weeks, Assad's forces had been on the
offensive in Homs, a province they consider vital to securing their hold from
Damascus to the president's coastal stronghold. The coast is home to a large
number of Assad's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, who
mostly support the president.
But the advance near Talkalakh and the
purported assassination of an Alawite cleric suggest the rebels are tentatively
trying to push back in central Syria.
Sectarian violence has increasingly
overtaken a conflict that began as peaceful protests against four decades of
Assad family rule but has now become an all-out civil war.
Muslim majority has largely supported the uprising and Islamist groups among the
rebels have increasingly threatened Alawites in retaliation for the killing of
The sectarian dimension of the conflict has drawn in foreign
fighters from neighbouring countries. Hundreds of Sunni militants have entered
Syria to fight alongside the rebels.
Meanwhile, Lebanese Shi'ite militant
group Hezbollah and Shi'ite militias from Iraq have sent men to fight alongside
Assad's forces, angering Sunnis across the region.
Some Syrians were
sceptical about the purported killing of the Alawite cleric Ghazal, saying there
was still no definitive proof. It was not immediately possible to independently
verify the report because of the restrictions imposed on foreign
Either way, the alleged killing or capture of Ghazal in Latakia
province is a symbolic threat to Alawites on the coast, whose heavily fortified
region has largely been spared the violence raging in most of the
The Observatory said rebels from the Nusra Front shot Ghazal
after he was kidnapped by rebels in the northern suburbs of Latakia earlier this
month. It was not clear when the execution might have occurred.