Amman: The Syrian army and its allies seized a strategic area in the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta area of Damascus, tightening their grip on the biggest insurgent stronghold near the capital.
Rebels said the army stormed the town of Tel Kurdi on Sunday bringing them only a few kilometres from the city of Douma, the once sprawling urban heart of the eastern rural area of Damascus known as Al Ghouta.
"After intensive battles on this front that continued more than fifty days in which the Assad militias used a scorched earth policy, the Mujahdeen were forced to retreat from the area," said Hamza Bairqdar, the military spokesman for Jaish Al Islam, the biggest rebel group in the area.
Since the start of the year, Syrian government forces and their allies have moved into Eastern Ghouta from the south, the southwest, and the east, helped by infighting among rebel groups that control the area.
"The collapse of the fronts is due to the internal fights," said Adnan Abdul Aziz, a lawyer in the rebel run Douma local council.
Tel Kurdi comes after a string of advances from the towns of Hosh Nasri, Al Fara and before that Maydaa and Deir Al Asafir that culminated in the seizing of a southern agricultural belt.
The densely populated rural Ghouta area consists of farms and towns stretching northeast from Damascus that has been in rebel hands since the uprising began in 2011.
Several hundred thousand people are believed to be trapped in Eastern Ghouta, an action similar in scale to the 250,000 civilians under siege in Aleppo.
Government troops, backed by Russian air power and militias, have been rooting out pockets of rebellion near the capital, notably taking the suburb Daraya.
Daraya's fall put pressure on other besieged rebel strongholds, boosting government hopes of subduing western and eastern suburbs of Damascus whose close proximity to Assad's seat of power posed a major threat.
"The regime wants to consolidate a security crescent around Damascus by evicting rebels," said Abu Jafaar, a political activist from the Ghouta familiar with the situation.
Separately, in the southwest of Damascus, in an area known as the Western Ghouta, the Syrian army and its allies have severed supply lines between rebel-held Khan Al Shih, a Palestinian refugee camp, and the town of Zakiya to its south. The army had earlier seized the nearby town of Deir Khabyeh.
Meanwhile, Syria's army said the Nusra Front and what the army called other terrorist groups had killed 84 people, mostly women and children, in Aleppo during the past three days, in a bombardment that included chemical weapons and rocket fire.
Syrian state media reported on Sunday that militants had fired poison gas at the Hamdaniya district of government-held western Aleppo. Rebels called that accusation a lie.
In a statement on Monday, the Army and Armed Forces High Command said rebels had targeted schools and civilians, fired 20 poison gas canisters, 50 Grad rockets and ignited 48 fires.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said it had recorded 48 deaths since the rebel offensive began, including 17 children.