Syrian rebels capture a strategic town in northern Hama province -- in a major offensive that threatens government loyalist towns populated by minority Christians and Alawites. Mana Rabiee reports.
(nats firing) Syrian rebels capturing a strategic town in northern Hama province. The hardline jihadist Jund al-Aqsa fighters helped launch a battle overnight, alongside brigades from the opposition Free Syrian Army. Together, they've taken the town of Halfaya in a major offensive, after storming army and pro-government checkpoints in the surrounding countryside. (motorbike along street) The capture of Halfaya threatens towns populated by minority Christians and Alawites -- towns loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. One rebel fighter says losses by government forces here were high before their retreat. (SOUNDBITE) (Arabic) JUND AL AQSA FIGHTER, ALI AHMAD, SAYING (PART COVERED WITH SHOT OF STREET): "They escaped like rats in front of us to the town of Mharden. God willing, we will persevere here in Halfaya. Martyrdom or victory." Civilians were seen fleeing Halfaya as clashes for its control escalated. The rebel offensive comes after weeks of government and allied Russian airstrikes on rebel-held areas. But those have had limited success. And this latest rebel offensive consolidates earlier gains made by the opposition, along a major north-south highway that's crucial to control of western Syria.