Syrian troops launch counterattack on south

BEIRUT – Syrian government forces launched a counteroffensive in the south, capturing a town and killing at least 45 people including women and children, opposition activists said Thursday.

The attack on the town of Sanamein followed a rebel advance in the area in recent weeks. They opposition fighters captured army bases and a major town in the strategic province of Daraa along the border with Jordan.

“They slaughtered any person they found,” an activist in the nearby town of Busra al-Harir who goes by the fake name of Hamza al-Hariri told The Associated Press via Skype. He would not give his real name for fear of government reprisals.

“This is the ugliest massacre since the one in Houla,” he added, referring to a region in the central province of Homs where more than 100 civilians were killed by government forces in May last year.

Rebels advancing in the south in recent weeks have been aiming to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus about 60 miles away in preparation for an eventual assault on the capital.

Regional officials and military experts note a sharp increase in weapons shipments to opposition fighters by Arab governments, in coordination with the U.S., in the hopes of readying a push into Damascus – the ultimate prize in the civil war that has killed more than 70,000 in two years.

Rebels already control vast portions of northern Syria bordering Turkey.

State-run Syrian TV said the armed forces “wiped out terrorist groups” in Sanamein and the nearby town of Ghabagheb. It added that troops were targeting rebel hideouts in different parts of Daraa. They included the villages and towns of Tafas, Jasssim, Dael and Tseel and the report said they had inflicted casualties in those areas.