BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army said on Friday it had taken control of a town northwest of Hama where the Nusra Front had been massing forces, dealing a blow to the al Qaeda-linked group that has been trying to open new fronts after losing ground to Islamic State.
The army also said it had secured nearby areas close to Hama military airport, driving back an offensive by insurgents whose advance had threatened several government loyalist towns populated mostly by minority Christians and Alawites.
The gains help shore up government control in a key corridor of territory stretching north from Damascus to the coast including the heartlands of the minority Alawite sect which forms President Bashar al-Assad’s power base.
Dozens of combatants on both sides had been killed in the week since government forces and allied fighters launched their counter offensive in the area, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war.
The Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in the Syrian civil war, had massed some 1,500 fighters in Halfaya in recent weeks in apparent preparation for an attack on Mehradah, a predominantly Christian town to the southwest, according to the Observatory.
Nusra fighters said their leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, had been leading the offensive and gave an emotional speech to rally his fighters as they moved into the area several weeks ago.
In a statement, the army said it had taken complete control of the town of Halfaya and surrounding areas after soldiers “eliminated large numbers of terrorists, most of them of non-Syrian nationality, and destroyed a large number of their vehicles and weapons”.
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said the Nusra Front fighters had staged a sudden withdrawal from Halfaya. “In the last week they called in other fighters because they couldn’t continue,” he said by telephone.
The army said it had also taken control of Khattab and other areas close to Hama military airport.
The Nusra Front has pulled its fighters out of eastern Syria in recent months following rapid advances by Islamic State, which has been strengthened by weaponry seized in Iraq.
Nusra and other Islamist groups recently opened a new front against government forces in the Golan Heights at the frontier with Israeli-held territory.
The group, which has been declared a terrorist organization by the United Nations, on Thursday released dozens of Fijian peacekeepers it had taken hostage during the offensive.
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Dominic Evans