The regime army and allied forces advanced against the opposition in western Syria near Hama city on Sunday, building on recent strategic gains in the area, a regime source and a monitoring group said.
Regime forces recaptured the town of Halfaya and nearby villages, the sources said. They took back territory that rebels seized in 2016 from forces loyal to Bashar al Assad's regime.
"We gained control of Halfaya and several hills in the area," the Syrian regime source said. "The army will, of course, continue its fight." Boosted by Russian air strikes and Iran-backed militias, the regime army has pushed into opposition-held areas north of Hama, expanding its control this week along the western highway that links Damascus and Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, confirmed the regime began advancing into areas near Halfaya when rebels withdrew on Sunday.
The opposition said the town had fallen after several days of relentless air strikes by Russian jets which are accused of a "scorched earth policy" that uses phosphorus and incendiary bombs on civilian areas.
"Russian jets had intensified their bombing ahead of the ground offensive the regime launched," said Mohamed Rasheed, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) Jaish al Nasr rebel group. "This allowed them to advance."
Reversing rebels' territorial gains
Rebel factions, including some which are spearheaded by militants from former Al Qaeda affiliates, have been fighting fiercely to defend the towns in recent days.
The army's earlier capture of Soran, its northern gateway to Hama city, meant it had reversed most of the territorial gains rebels made in their major offensive last month.
With the help of its allies, the regime has gained the military upper hand in the six-year war against the wide range of opposition groups, including some supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is scheduled to meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov on Monday in an effort to push forward the Syrian peace process.