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syria9 400MAARET AL-NUMAN: Syrian rebels Thursday completely cut off the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, choking the flow of regime troops to battlefields in the north, an AFP reporter said.


Rebels were in full control of a five kilometre (about three mile) stretch of highway near the key town of Maaret al-Numan, which they seized on Tuesday, the reporter said.


Syria's army uses the highway to send reinforcements to the commercial capital Aleppo, which since mid-July has been one of the main focuses of the country's nearly 19-month civil war.


Syrian troops had during the night attempted to retake Maaret al-Numan but had failed, rebel commander Akram Sale told AFP, adding that four rebels were killed overnight.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had on Tuesday reported that rebels overran the city after a fierce 48-hour gunbattle and heavy shelling, taking control of eight army positions.


Fierce fighting has raged since then as the army seeks to regain control of the strategic city, which has a population of around 125,000 but which has now been largely deserted by civilians.


Rebels on Thursday surrounded two bases still retained by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, at Wadi Daif and Hamdiyeh, boasting that they will soon overrun them.


Firaz Abdel Hadi, a rebel media official, said that almost 300 people have been killed in three days in Maaret al-Numan, including 55 civilians, 46 rebel fighters and 190 Syrian army soldiers.


Other sources said that regime forces executed at least 65 prisoners before retreating from the city. A surviving prisoner said guards had opened fire on 80 prisoners before fleeing.


The rebels have set up their headquarters in the mosaic museum in the city, which had been occupied by regime forces.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012

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