DAMASCUS, May 8 (Xinhua) -- The Syrian army on Wednesday captured a key city in the countryside of Hama province in central Syria, as part of the military campaign launched recently against the ultra-radical rebels, a war monitor reported.
The army captured the city of Kafr Naboudeh in the northern countryside of Hama province after battles with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the umbrella group of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The UK-based watchdog group said the HTS is trying to retake the city that fell to the army following heavy shelling and airstrikes.
The city has strategic importance as it links several towns in northern Hama countryside with rebel-held areas in the southern countryside of Idlib.
A day earlier, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported that the Syrian army has started an operation against the rebels in the northern countryside of the central province of Hama.
Buoyed up by artillery shelling and airstrikes, the army succeeded over the past hours in capturing three towns and a strategic hilltop in the northern and northwestern countryside of Hama.
The military operation aims to eliminate the rebels of HTS from the northern countryside of Hama, al-Watan said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian army captured after midnight Tuesday the strategic Tal Othman area in northern Hama after battles with the rebels.
According to the London-based watchdog, the airstrikes renewed Tuesday morning on the rebel-held areas in Hama countryside as well as the nearby countryside region of the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
The escalation between the army and the rebels in Hama has lasted eight days.
Areas in the countryside of Hama, Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo are included in the de-escalation zones deal which was reached between Russia and Turkey in September 2018.
The deal failed to materialize as the HTS, umbrella group of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, expanded in Idlib and started attacks on Syrian military positions instead of withdrawing from the designated zone which combines Idlib with Hama and Aleppo countryside.
It's unclear yet whether the ongoing military operation will focus only on Hama countryside or expand to include Idlib, last major rebel stronghold in Syria.