Beirut- Syrian rebels seized a Mediterranean coastal village on Tuesday as they pushed to consolidate their presence in a key regime bastion near the Turkish border, a monitoring group said.
The government denied the claim, saying fighting was still underway in the area. The claimed capture of Samra, in Latakia province, comes a day after rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad seized the area around Kasab, the last government-held border crossing with Turkey.
In retaliation, the army pounded rebel positions in the northwestern province, heartland of Assad's Alawite sect and scene of fierce fighting since Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebels, including from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, "took control of Samra village in Latakia province early Tuesday," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Samra is located in a valley near the Turkish border, and gives the rebels access to the sea. Latakia is also important because of its location on the coast, and losing it would be a tough blow for the regime, said local activist Omar al-Jeblawi.
"The area is so strategic to the regime, that whenever fighting does break out in Latakia, the army pulls back from other areas in order to redeploy here," he said.
Jeblawi said "thousands of opposition fighters" have deployed in the Latakia region. "The advances are quick. And the takeover of Kasab was only the beginning of the road to liberating Latakia."A security source in Damascus denied that Samra had fallen, saying "fierce fighting" was still underway.
"The Syrian army is completely in control... of the mountains" overlooking Samra. It is impossible (for the rebels) to take over the area," the source said.
Speaking by phone, a rebel fighter in the area attributed the opposition's advances to the withdrawal two weeks ago of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Since early January, ISIL had been fighting moderates and Islamists in the opposition camp in much of northern Syria, leaving thousands dead.
"We had our differences with ISIL, but now they are gone, so we can work as one hand," said the rebel, who identified himself only as Samer. He tried to dispel fears the fighting in Latakia may take on an overtly sectarian character, saying "our problem is not with religious groups. We just want the regime out."
In a previous round of Latakia fighting last year, Human Rights Watch accused rebels and ISIL of waging a "planned attack on the civilian population" of Alawite villages. Since Friday, some 170 fighters on both sides have been killed, the Observatory said. More than 146,000 people have been killed and nearly half the population displaced in Syria's three-year war.