BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army has regained control of a town on the highway linking Hama and Aleppo cities in western Syria after months of battles with insurgents, state television and a monitoring group said on Friday.
The recapture of Morek, 30km (19 miles) north of Hama, is part of the military’s campaign to shore up territory in the west of the country stretching north from Damascus as U.S.-led forces bomb Islamist militants elsewhere in Syria.
The army “took full control of the town of Morek in the northern Hama countryside and killed a number of terrorists and mercenaries,” state television said in a news alert, citing a military source.
The town is significant because it sits on the main route between two of Syria’s most populated cities. President Bashar al-Assad’s force has intensified air raids on western areas in the past month and has been making incremental gains on the ground.
Hundreds of soldiers were killed in nine months of battles for the town with rebel fighters, including some from al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
The military took control of the town late on Thursday after heavy shelling and air strikes in the area which killed fighters on both sides, according to the Observatory.
A rebel brigade in northwestern Syria said Morek should not be overlooked as a battle rages further north around the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani in Kurdish.
The hardline Islamic State group is trying to capture the town close to the Turkish border from Kurdish forces and the battle has become the focus of international attention.
“Morek is more deserving of forces to prevent the progress of Assad,” a statement from the Syria Revolutionaries Front said.
The group is aligned with the western-backed Free Syrian Army.
An intensified military campaign by pro-Assad forces is stoking fears among his opponents that the government is taking advantage of the U.S. raids on Islamic State to attack other foes.
Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Angus MacSwan