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Assad's forces capture strategic town in southern Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter is seen near a mortar in Khirbet Ghazaleh, Daraa, May 3, 2013. Picture taken May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Thaer Abdallah
A Free Syrian Army fighter is seen near a mortar in Khirbet Ghazaleh, Daraa, May 3, 2013. Picture taken May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Thaer Abdallah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - The Syrian army captured a strategic southern town from rebel fighters on Wednesday after a ferocious two-month bombardment, in an advance likely to result in President Bashar al-Assad's forces regaining control of an international transit route, opposition sources said.

The fall of Khirbet Ghazaleh, situated in the Hauran Plain on the highway to Jordan, came after a Jordanian-backed Syrian opposition military council failed to supply weapons to the town's defenders.

This raised resentment among opposition fighters over what they saw as a lack of Jordanian support for their efforts to defeat Assad's forces in the region, according to rebel commanders and activists in the area.

The Hauran Plain, which extends to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, is the birthplace of the revolt against four decades of family rule by Assad and his late father, which erupted in the city of Deraa in March 2011.

Rebel fighters, operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, cut off the highway to Jordan two months ago. But keeping the road off-limits to Assad's forces depended on retaining Khirbet Ghazaleh, which is at a crossroads leading west to the contested city of Deraa, the sources said.

Before the uprising in Syria, billions of dollars in goods traded between Gulf countries, Turkey and Europe were transported along the highway, which passes Khirbet Ghazaleh before ending at the Nassib border crossing to Jordan.

About 1,000 rebel fighters withdrew from Khirbet Ghazaleh on Wednesday after losing hope that reinforcements would come from Jordan, which has been cautious about provoking a military response from Assad, activists and opposition fighters said.

"Assad's forces started advancing from the north and west and I can still go back to Khirbet Ghazaleh but I cannot do anything," Abu Yacoub, commander of the Martyrs of Khirbet Ghazaleh brigade, told Reuters by telephone from Hauran.

"I can get a thousand fighters back but it is useless because I don't have ammunition in my hands."

Abu Yacoub said he had contacted Ahmad Nemaah, head of the Jordanian backed military council, before ordering the rebel fighters to withdraw, but Nemaah told him he could not do anything.

"If we lost a battle it does not mean we lost for good. But everyone has turned against Nemaah," Abu Yacoub said.

Nemaah could not be reached for comment.

'BIG TRAGEDY'

"Tomorrow, the big tragedy will happen, the regime's supply route to Deraa will reopen and the officers will go back and ammunition will be resupplied and the bombardment will resume," said Abu Yacoub. "For 61 days we had choked them by controlling Khirbet Ghazaleh."

Abu Yacoub said he had lost 35 fighters in two months.

Al Mutasem Billah, an activist with the Sham News Network opposition monitoring group, said most of the rebel brigades in the south blame Jordan and the military council for the defeat.

"The council follows Jordanian Intelligence, which is more concerned about setting up a proxy unit than an effective force on the ground to take on Assad," he said.

Abu Bakr an activist in the nearby Ghweireh village said most civilians had fled Khirbet Ghazaleh but fear was growing that the remaining residents would face summary executions, similar to massacres in other towns overrun by Assad's forces.

"The people of the area are now fleeing because they fear the army will sweep across the region," he said. "The Free Syrian Army will continue to withdraw and won't face the army along the highway because they no longer have ammunition."

Hauran, which borders Jordan and the Golan Heights, has become a significant battleground as the capital of Damascus comes under pressure, with Assad's forces and loyalist militias hitting back.

The intensified fighting has also led to an influx this year of hundreds of thousands of refugees through Jordan's 370 km (230 mile) border with Syria.

The rebels say they have captured large quantities of weapons, ammunition and vehicles, which has helped them to maintain an offensive after a long period in which the southern border area was relatively quiet compared to the northern and eastern parts of Syria.

Jordan has stepped up security and deployed more troops to the border.

Diplomatic and regional intelligence sources also said Amman was allowing limited supplies of light arms to the military council, which is opposed to the Nusra front, an Islamist militant group suspected of links to al Qaeda and blacklisted by the United States as a "terrorist group."

Al-Nusra members, however, have been largely uninvolved in the Khirbet Ghazaleh fighting, activists and opposition military sources said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis. Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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