Soldiers loyal to President al-Assad are seen at Qara town, north of Damascus
Sana  /  REUTERS
Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen at Qara town, north of Damascus, in the Qalamoun mountains, after they took control of it from rebel fighters, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on November 19, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters
updated 11/19/2013 4:04:43 PM ET 2013-11-19T21:04:43

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's army said it pushed rebels out of the southern town of Qara on Tuesday, strengthening its hold on a highway linking the capital to government strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.

There was no immediate comment from insurgents on the assault by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which began on Friday. But regional news channel Al Mayadeen broadcast images of Syrian soldiers walking in Qara's empty streets.

The town sits on the strategic route 80 km (50 miles) north of Damascus in the Qalamoun mountains.

Securing the highway would help Assad consolidate his power bases, while also clearing a route to transport chemical agents out of the country under a U.S. and Russian-backed program to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.

The armed forces statement said the army "eliminated a large number of terrorists who were holed up in the town and ... tried to target the Damascus-Homs highway and block traffic on this vital artery".

It said the army's gains had reinforced its control over supply lines and up to the border with Lebanon, closing off an arms smuggling route used by the rebels.

The capture of Qara follows army advances around the northern city of Aleppo and in towns circling Damascus as rebels lose ground in the civil war that, the United Nations says, has left more than 100,000 dead.

An estimated 6,000 people have fled Qara into Lebanon, United Nations refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

"Refugees have told us that they spent days living in underground shelters before deciding to flee," he said. "A family of 10 told us they had crammed into a single car on Saturday evening to flee."

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes and Dominic Evans in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp

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