Insurgents in Syria Said to Seize Southern Town

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Syrian antigovernment activists reported the rebel seizure of a strategically important town in southern Syria on Friday only a few miles from the Jordanian border, which if confirmed would represent a new setback for government forces, who have already ceded territory to the insurgency in the north and east.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment group in Britain with contacts throughout Syria, said rebel fighters secured the town, Dael, after more than a day of clashes in which three military checkpoints were destroyed and more than 24 combatants and at least nine civilians were killed.

The town, with a population of about 40,000, sits on an important north-south highway that connects Damascus to Dara'a, the southern city that was the birthplace of the March 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which turned into a civil war.

"The entire town, which is on the Damascus-Dara'a road, is now outside the control of government forces," the Syrian Observatory said in its daily dispatch of fighting. Other activists posted Internet videos taken in Dael, including one showing a Syrian Army tank in flames, to corroborate the rebel gain.

Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory, said in a telephone interview that the seizure of Dael was significant because it could prevent the military from using the north-south highway for funneling war matériel between Damascus and Dara'a. The highway is also an important doorway to Jordan, which Mr. Abdulrahman said was a point of entry for weapons and ammunition that is channeled to the rebels.

"The importance of Dael is its location," he said.

Outside experts who have been following the progression of the war also said the seizure of Dael was significant because fighting in that area of southern Syria has been raging for weeks. Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail, "It's a big win in a long war, and a loss of that area is strategic."

There was no independent way to confirm whether the rebel occupation of Dael was temporary, or to ascertain whether the military would respond with overwhelming force, as Mr. Assad's forces have done many times before in efforts to retake contested areas.

Mohammed Qadah, a Dara'a representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main opposition group, said in a telephone interview that the military had been "raining mortars and shells" on Dael since rebels occupied it early Friday, and that at least two other villages on the Damascus-Dara'a highway remained under government control.

The Syrian military has increasingly resorted to the use of warplanes, helicopters and missiles to rout rebel forces. But the military's ability to fight back and hold territory has eroded after two years of fighting. It retains at least a partial grip on most major cities but has relinquished authority in parts of the north bordering Turkey and in the northeast near Iraq. Earlier this month, rebel forces seized control of Raqqa, a provincial capital in the northeast, and have held it.

In Damascus, the Syrian state media said inquiries had begun into a mortar attack on Thursday that hit the main university's architectural engineering school, killing at least 10 students in an outdoor cafe. The attack, one of the worst in the capital, was blamed by the government on terrorists, its generic term for the armed opposition.

The Ministry of Higher Education, in a statement reported by the official SANA news agency, "affirmed that Syrian universities and institutes will remain centers for spreading science and knowledge, in addition to refuting the criminal thought practiced by the armed terrorist groups."

Hala Droubi reported from Dubai, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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