By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — An al-Qaida-linked group has warned civilians to stay off a road linking central Syria with the northern province of Aleppo, declaring it a military zone, as the rebels try to cut one of the regime's main routes for supplying its forces in the north, activists said Tuesday.
The warning comes a day after rebels went on the offensive in Syria's north, seizing three villages in the province where a military stalemate has been in place since last summer.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center said that Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, is threatening to target any vehicle using the road starting Wednesday. A copy of the warning was posted online.
The regime uses the route to ferry supplies to its forces in the north because the rebels already have severed the main north-south highway that connects Damascus with the embattled city of Aleppo, where regime forces have battled rebels in vicious street fighting for a year. The desert road was paved and opened by regime forces earlier this year.
The statement, which was stamped with the Nusra Front emblem, said the Syrian military "opened this road to civilian cars and trucks when in fact it is a military road."
"There are daily clashes and military operations there. Holy warriors have booby-trapped the road," it said, instructing civilians not to use the road and claiming that the army will be using them as "human shields to cover its movements."
If the rebels succeed in cutting the road, it will be a major blow to the regime, making it more difficult to bring in military reinforcements as well as other supplies to Aleppo province, most of which is under rebel control.
On Monday, rebels captured three villages southwest of the provincial capital of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial center. The villages are close to the road the Nusra Front is trying to cut, and include the strategic village of Khan al-Assal.
Located just west of Aleppo, Khan al-Assal has been a major front in the fight for the city itself. In March, chemical weapons were allegedly used in the village, killing more than 30 people. The Syrian government and the rebels blame each other for the attack.
In the capital Damascus, the Observatory reported clashes in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. It said the fighting was between rebels and the pro-government Palestinian Popular Committees.
The fighting in Yarmouk, the largest camp in Damascus, first broke out last year. Palestinians are divided between supporters and opponents of the regime.
In May, the head of a U.N. aid agency said Syria's fighting has uprooted more than half of the country's 530,000 Palestinians — descendants of refugees from the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel — and their situation is becoming increasingly desperate.
More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, according to the United Nations.