Syria rebels take coastal
village in Assad heartland

Rebel fighters walk outside Latakia. (AFP/Amr Radwan al-Homsi)

BEIRUT - Syria's opposition fighters seized a Mediterranean coastal village Tuesday as they pushed to consolidate their presence in a key regime bastion near the Turkish border, a monitoring group said.


The capture of Samra in Latakia province comes a day after rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad seized the area around Kasab, the last government-held crossing post with Turkey.


In retaliation the army pounded rebel positions in the northwestern coastal province, heartland of Assad's Alawite sect and scene of fierce fighting since Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Rebels including the jihadist Al-Nusra Front "took control of Samra village in Latakia province early Tuesday," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.


"Fierce fighting has raged on in the outskirts of the village," he told AFP.


Samra is located in a valley near the Turkish border, and gives the rebels access to the sea.


Latakia is important because of its location on the coast, and because it is the heartland of both the Assad clan and the Alawite sect.


Losing it would be a tough blow for the regime, said Latakia activist Omar al-Jeblawi.


"The area is so strategic to the regime, that whenever fighting does break out in Latakia, the army pulls back from other areas in order to redeploy here," he told AFP.


According to Jeblawi "thousands of opposition fighters" have deployed in the Latakia region in recent days.


"The advances are quick. And the takeover of Kasab was only the beginning of the road to liberating Latakia."


A security source in Damascus denied that Samra fell saying "fierce fighting" was still underway.


"The Syrian army is completely in control... of the mountains" overlooking Samra. It is impossible [for the rebels] to take over the area," the source said.


Some 170 fighters on both sides have been killed in the Latakia fighting, the Observatory said.


More than 146,000 people have been killed in Syria's war since March 2011. Nearly half the population has been displaced by the violence.

Rebel fighters walk outside Latakia. (AFP/Amr Radwan al-Homsi)

Fierce fighting has raged on in the outskirts of the village.