Roundup: Syrian army captures key towns in Hama province, closing in on al-Qaida strongholds

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DAMASCUS, Aug. 7 (Xinhua) -- The Syrian army succeeded on Wednesday to capture two key towns in the countryside of the central province of Hama, forcing the rebels to flee to their last strongholds in that area.

The state news agency SANA said the army captured the towns of al-Arbaeen and al-Zakah in the northern countryside of Hama after battles with the rebels.

The capture of the two towns comes as part of a counter-offensive the army carried out to foil a major attack by the rebels in northern Hama.

At early time Wednesday, the rebels launched their massive attack on areas controlled by the Syrian army in northern Hama, pushing the army units to briefly retreat.

Later, the army launched a counter-offensive, restoring the lost areas and advancing to capture al-Zakah and al-Arbaeen.

A military source in Hama told Xinhua that that the army responded to the rebels' attacks which were carried out on several areas.

"Over the past hours, the rebel groups carried out several attacks and we immediately responded to the attacks that were carried out on several fronts in the countryside of Hama," he said.

Al-Zakah in particular is important as it's one of the major strongholds of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and was a launching pad for the group's attacks on Syrian military positions.

The town was also the place where the mortar shells of the rebels used to be fired on safe areas in Hama.

The army captured al-Zakah for the first time in seven years on Wednesday.

Capturing al-Zakah is the key for the army advancement to the towns of Kafr Zita and al-Lataminah, the biggest rebel strongholds in Hama.

Capturing Kafr Zita and al-Lataminah will leave the entire Hama province under government control.

A video footage obtained by Xinhua on Wednesday showed the army positions in al-Zakah and the shelling on rebel positions in Kafr Zita and al-Lataminah.

The footage also showed destroyed vehicles and a tank of the rebels as well as tunnels used by the rebels ahead of their defeat.

On Monday, the Syrian army declared in a statement the resumption of military operations in Idlib and Hama provinces, citing the cease-fire violation by the rebels.

The Syrian army said the "terrorist groups" refused to abide by the cease-fire deal that went into force on August 1 in the de-escalation zone in Idlib and Hama and launched several attacks on civilians in nearby areas.

The de-escalation zones' deal was established last September under the supervision of Turkey and Russia.

It includes Idlib, as well as countryside areas of the nearby provinces of Hama and Latakia and areas in Aleppo province in northwestern Syria.

Idlib, in particular, is the last major rebel stronghold in the country.

Last April, the military showdown returned on the surface and battles were reported in the northern countryside of Hama near Idlib.

The recent cease-fire was reached in the 13th round of Syrian talks in the Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan, previously known as Astana.

The guarantors of the talks, as well as government and opposition delegations, agreed on a cease-fire in the de-escalation zone and the retreat of the rebels 20 km in depth of Idlib.

The al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, the striking force in Idlib, refused the cease-fire and the planned retreat.

The terror-labeled group, instead, launched their massive assault on Wednesday, which pushed the army to respond and capture al-Zakah and al-Arbaeen. Enditem

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