Syrian government forces seized a town from rebels near the Lebanese border on Saturday, their latest attempt to cut off opposition fighters' supply lines, state media and activists said.
The fighting in Zara came as President Bashar al-Assad marked the 51st anniversary of his ruling Baath party's ascent to power, vowing to strengthen relations with international allies that have provided his main backing over the past three tumultuous years.
"The (Baath) leadership's efforts are concentrated on strengthening the alliance with friendly countries such as Russia, Iran and China," state TV quoted Assad as telling a group of local Baath party leaders from the suburbs of Damascus.
The fighting has lasted weeks around Zara, which rebels used as a base to attack pro-regime communities in the area, said pro-Syrian government media and Rami Abdurrahman of the anti-Assad, Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The town was one of two last strongholds for rebels along the Lebanese border leading to the city of Homs, the other being the nearby village of Al-Hosn, said another activist who identified himself as Samy al-Homsi.
"Without Al-Hosn and Zara, it will be the end of the revolution to the west of Homs," al-Homsi said. "It's the only two areas left to the rebels there."
In a statement on state news agency SANA, Syria's armed forces said they had established complete control over the village and killed and captured a "large number of terrorists,” using state media's customary term for rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
The victory gave government forces control over a route connecting central Syria to the Mediterranean coast and which had been used as "a primary route for terrorist groups coming from Lebanese territory to neighboring areas to carry out criminal operations", it said.
Meanwhile, Syria's main Western-backed coalition confirmed Saturday that it has chosen a new army chief following an embarrassing episode in which their former leader refused to step down.
The statement insisted that despite some "confusion," Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir would assume leadership of the coalition's military council.
The body originally issued the announcement appointing al-Bashir on Feb. 17. But two days later, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris rejected his dismissal. Then Idris, along with more than a dozen senior insurgent commanders, severed ties with the political opposition-in-exile, further fragmenting the divided rebel movement.
Idris was ousted by colleagues who blamed him for the waning influence of the coalition-backed Free Syrian Army, as Islamic-orientated brigades grew in power.
Syria's civil war has killed over 140,000 people since it started three years ago as a peaceful protest movement against four decades of Assad family rule. Syria remains the most dangerous country for journalists with more than 63 killed since 2011, including 29 last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The conflict has become increasingly tangled as rebel groups — including many Sunni hardliners — have turned on one another, leading to clashes that have killed thousands of people this year alone.
Al Jazeera and wire services