Syrian troops pound central village as rebels make gains in Golan Heights

Al Assad's forces make preparations for ground offensive as militants seize most of the Syrian side of the armistice line with Israel.

Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad walk through Halfaya in Hama province. George Ourfalian / Reuters
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BEIRUT // Syrian warplanes and helicopter gunships struck targets in a central village on Saturday in what appears to be preparations for a ground offensive on the rebel stronghold, activists said.

The air raids on Kfar Zeita, which has been under rebel control for nearly two years, came amid a major government offensive in the religiously mixed central province of Hama.

Saturday’s air raids came two days after troops captured the strategic town of Halfaya, better positioning government forces to defend nearby Christian and Alawite communities that support president Bashar Al Assad. Central Syria is a communal patchwork home to large groups of Christians, Ismailis and Alawites, who mainly back Mr Al Assad, himself an Alawite. Many from these groups fear attacks on them by extremists among the mostly-Sunni rebels.

Kfar Zeita and the nearby town of Morek, which are on the motorway linking Hama with Aleppo, have been rebel-controlled since late 2012.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian warplanes conducted at least eight airstrikes on Kfar Zeita. It had no word on casualties. A Hama-based activist who goes by the name of Yazan Shahdawi said that by the afternoon there had been about 20 strikes, as well as artillery shelling.

“All this is in preparation to storm the village,” Mr Shahdawi said via Skype.

Also on Saturday, state-run news agency SANA quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops have captured several towns in Hama province including Taibet Al Imam, Lweibdah and Zour Abo Zaid. It added that troops inflicted “gross losses” among opposition fighters.

Meanwhile, rebels including Al Qaeda loyalists have seized most of the Syrian side of the armistice line with Israel in the Golan Heights, a monitoring group said on Saturday.

Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front and its allies launched a major offensive against government forces in Quneitra province last month, capturing the sole crossing point over the armistice line to the Israeli-occupied sector of the strategic plateau.

“The regime is on the retreat before the advancing rebels,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“The regime has now lost control of about 80 percent of towns and villages in Quneitra province.”

The rebels seized 45 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on August 28 and held them hostage until Thursday.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Press