BEIRUT - Syrian forces went on the offensive on Saturday against rebels positioned along a major highway linking the capital with the coast, rebels said, a strategic road that is likely to be used to extract chemical weapons from the country.
The road passes through the mountainous area of Qalamoun, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus, a region that stretches along the Lebanese border and is one of Syria's most heavily militarized districts.
Captain Islam Alloush, spokesman for the Army of Islam, the largest alliance of rebel groups in the capital, said that fighting was intense in the small highway town of Qara.
"There are a large number of our fighters stationed along the road," he said.
Diplomats say Syrian authorities have identified the road north from Damascus towards Homs and the coast as the preferred route to transport chemical agents under a US-Russian accord to eliminate them from the country's protracted civil war.
Although the army and civilians use the highway, parts of it go near rebel-held areas and convoys are prone to ambushes.