Syrian government forces and their allies retook a key southern military base after heavy fighting with rebels and an Al-Qaida affiliate on Tuesday, government and opposition activists said.
The base of Brigade 82 in the town of Sheikh al-Maskeen in Daraa province, which rebels captured last January, fell to the government forces, who also took control of the northern part of the town, they said.
"It's a very important gain for the regime forces, they've now cut the road between Daraa and Damascus," said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
He said the fighting began a day earlier and that among the rebels were fighters from Al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, as well as other Islamic factions.
Government troops were bolstered by Iranian officers, pro-government militiamen and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, as well as some 80 airstrikes from the government side, possibly including some from Russian aircraft, Abdurrahman said.
Russia has until recently focused its bombing on insurgent targets in northwestern Syria and coastal areas to help the Syrian army claw back territory it lost earlier this year.
The advance was the latest blow to the rebels, after government forces killed 17 fighters from Islamic rebel factions gathered at farmhouses in the Daraa area late Saturday, and killed a powerful rebel leader on the outskirts of Damascus a day earlier.
The recapture of Sheikh Maskin, located at the heart of Daraa province, would consolidate the army's hold over the heavily fortified region which has formed a southern line of defense protecting Damascus.
The south is the last major stronghold of the mainstream, anti-President Bashar Assad opposition, which has been weakened elsewhere by the expansion of the ultra-hardline Islamic State group in the east and north, and gains by the Nusra Front in the northwest.
Non-Nusra rebels in the south receive what they describe as small amounts of military and financial support from Western and Arab states. It has been channeled via Jordan, a U.S. ally that is determined to protect its Syrian frontier from jihadists.
The developments could boost the government's position ahead of peace talks in Geneva next month.
Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in Daraa, gave a similar account of the intense fighting as Abdurrahman, saying rockets, artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns had been used in and around the town. He said the government had advanced on the base but had not completely captured it.
State news agency SANA said the army inflicted heavy losses on the militants, but did not give a death toll. Abdurrahman said dozens were killed on both sides, without giving a breakdown. Al-Masalmeh said the rebels lost some 20 fighters in two days of fighting, with 35 killed on the government side as well as eight civilians.
All sides said fighting in the area was ongoing.
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