By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's armed forces said on Friday they had captured a strategic northern town at the eastern gates of Aleppo, the former commercial hub long the scene of fierce fighting between government and rebel fighters.
The town of Safira lies on a road the army said would be used to send in medicine and supplies to government-controlled areas of Aleppo, mired in a bloody stalemate for over a year. It is also the site of a chemical weapons installation under government control and cleared of equipment.
The capture of Safira is significant in that it marks a rare victory for Assad's forces near the mostly rebel-held north. Opposition groups confirmed the army's seizure of the city, southeast of Aleppo.
"Our heroic armed forces gained full control over the town of Safira after a series of strategic operations... The importance of this new success for our armed forces is due to its strategic importance at the eastern gates of Aleppo," a spokesman for the Syrian army said in a televised statement.
The conflict in Syria, now more than 2-1/2-years old, has long been in stalemate but Assad's forces have been making slow advances in the centre of the country and near the capital since they captured a strategic border town near Lebanon with the help of the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government had seized the town on Friday morning after more than three weeks of fighting.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has teams in Syria to eliminate the country's chemical weapons arsenal, has said its teams were unable to reach two sites for inspection because they were too dangerous.
A source briefed on their operations said one of those sites was at Safira.
The chemical weapons site itself has been under government control but emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby, according to the OPCW.
ASSAD ADVANCES ON REBEL AREAS
Further south, fighting took place in and around the capital Damascus where the government has launched an offensive in recent months to retake rebel-held suburbs.
The Observatory said the rural town of Sbeneh, 6 km (4 miles) south of Damascus, faced shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces supported by pro-Assad militias, Hezbollah fighters and other foreign fighters.
The attack is part of government attempt to retake rural towns outside Damascus by heavy shelling from afar in conjunction with a slow but creeping blockade that has prevented food or supplies from entering the area.
Rebel-held districts on the edge of the capital, some under siege for nearly a year, have been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades.
The next front in the war is expected to centre on the mountainous Qalamoun area, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus, less than 10 km (6 miles) from the Lebanese border.
One of Syria's most heavily militarised districts, Qalamoun is vital to Assad's control of the route from Damascus to the Latakia coast, a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect.
Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population has largely supported the uprising, while Alawites have generally stood with Assad.
Diplomats said a hospital in Qalamoun was evacuated on Friday while the University of Qalamoun closed on Thursday. A message on the university's website cited maintenance to the water system for the 10-day closure.
Fighting has sometimes damaged water and sanitation infrastructure, but activists in Damascus suspected the government is preparing to use the campus as a military base.
(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Ralph Boulton)