Backed by militia fighters and warplanes, the Syrian army recaptured on Monday a key position in the coastal province of Latakia, considered to be President Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral homeland, state television said.
“Syrian army units have full control of Observatory 45 in the north of Latakia province and are continuing to pursue terrorist groups,” Agence France-Presse quoted state television as saying.
Observatory 45 is a strategic hilltop that overlooks several areas inhabited by residents from the Alawite community, the religious sect to which Assad belongs.
The rebels and opposition groups have not confirmed its capture.
Meanwhile, state television showed footage of what it said were “terrorists,” many of them foreigners, killed in the area during the government offensive. Several bearded men in military uniforms lay dead, covered with blood, as government troops stood in the background.
Opposition fighters from several conservative and hardline Islamic groups, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, launched their assault on the northern stretches of Latakia province along the Turkish frontier on March 21.
So far, they have seized a border crossing, several villages and the predominantly Armenian-Christian town of Kasab, also gaining control of an outlet to the sea for the first time since Syria’s uprising began three years ago.
Their push for the area from which Assad’s family hails from appeared to have caught Damascus off guard.
Government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have recently triumphed against the opposition along the border area with Lebanon, ousting rebels from their border strongholds inside Syria and cutting off supply routes from the neighboring country.
Meanwhile, Syria’s information minister lashed out at Turkey, accusing Ankara of sending foreign fighters across the border to fight Syrian government troops in Latakia.
Hours after Omran al-Zoubi’s comments, Turkey said its artillery fired into Syrian territory in retaliation for a rocket that hit a mosque in a Turkish border town.
The rocket from Syria wounded an elderly Syrian refugee woman in Hatay province on Sunday, where several mortar rounds also hit the ground, without causing harm, Turkey’s Dogan News Agency reported.
“In accordance with our new military engagement rules, our artillery units on the border fired into Syria in response,” Hatay officials were quoted as saying in a statement.
Turkey, a staunch opponent of the regime in Damascus, hosts more than 750,000 refugees from the three-year-old Syrian conflict, many of them in camps along the border.
The military along Turkey’s Syria border often retaliates when munitions from fighting there hit its territory.
Syrian state of war
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a late-night speech after his party scored a landslide victory in Sunday local polls, said “Syria is currently in a state of war against us.”
A week before Erdogan’s remarks, Turkey said its own F-16 aircraft had shot down a Syrian fighter jet for a breach of Turkish airspace as it was on a mission to bombard rebels near the border.
Both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul congratulated the Turkish armed forces following the incident.
Turkey toughened its rules of engagement after the downing of one of its fighter jets by the Syrian air force in June 2012, warning that any military approach of the Turkish border from Syria would be considered a threat.
(With AFP and the Associated Press)