Syrian military seizes key swath of land in country’s centre

BEIRUT — Syria’s military announced Wednesday it has restored government control over more than 460 square miles (1,200 square kilometres) in central Syria, securing a power station, a refinery and a cement factory after uprooting armed opposition from the area.

With the latest military victory, Syrian government forces regain control of the largest single swath of rebel-held land yet, enabling it to secure roads between the country’s three main cities for the first time since the war began in 2011. The cities were either in rebel hands or the roads leading to them were in the line of fire for most of the last seven years. The victory was possible following a rebel capitulation, the latest in a series of surrender deals that secured government control of areas in central Syria and near the capital.

“The brave armed forces, with support from allies, has completed the clearing of 1,200 square kilometres (463 square miles) in rural Northern Homs and Southern Hama, and has restored security to 65 villages and towns,” said Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub, who read the statement on Syrian television Wednesday.

“This achievement is important because the armed terrorism has been uprooted from this vital geographical area in central Syria which is an artery linking neighbouring provinces” and has removed threats to Homs refinery, a power station and a cement factory, he said.

It also allows the Syrian government to secure the roads linking south, central and northern Syria, restoring direct transport between the country’s main cities Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.

The government announcement came after the last batch of rebels and opposition left from southern Hama and northern Homs, completing the evacuation of over 30,000 people from the area following a surrender deal with the rebels who were in control for years.

In a major victory for the Syrian government, the rebels agreed, following Russian-sponsored mediation, to evacuate their areas in early May.

That deal came days after rebels cleared their last remaining strongholds around the capital Damascus, in another major victory for the Syrian government. The government troops and allied fighters continue to battle the remaining Islamic State group fighters in a pocket south of Damascus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the last of seven batches of displaced left the area Wednesday in a convoy, bringing the total to 31,300 people, including fighters and civilians, who have departed to other rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

Government security forces began deploying in the evacuated towns and villages Tuesday, completing their deployment by raising the flag in Rastan, one of the largest towns in northern rural Homs, and a stronghold for the Syrian opposition for years.

“For the first time since 2011, Damascus, its suburbs, Homs and Hama provinces are for the most part controlled by the government, except for small pockets of Islamic State militants at the edge of the desert to the east near the Iraqi border and in Yarmouk camp south of Damascus as well as some rebel fighters in northern Hama,” said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Observatory.

A small pocket in southern Homs near the border with Iraq is controlled by U.S.-backed rebels.

The civil war in Syria has started in 2011, with violence tearing the country apart, leaving more than 450,000 killed, and 11 million displaced from their homes internally and abroad.

Even though government forces have nearly gained full control of areas surrounding the capital from rebel forces in recent weeks, they are still battling remnants of IS south of Damascus.

On Wednesday, Syrian state TV said two people have been killed and 19 others injured when a shell fired by “terrorist groups” fell in the heart of the Syrian capital. Damascus police said the shell landed near Victoria bridge in downtown, causing damage.

For years, the capital has seen repeated shelling from Damascus suburbs.

___

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed reporting.

Sarah El Deeb, The Associated Press

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