By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - The Syrian army and loyalist fighters on Thursday captured a strategic southern suburb of Damascus, threatening rebel control of the wider area and cutting off a supply route for insurgents around the capital, opposition activists said.
The town of Sbeineh is the third rebel neighborhood to fall to government forces since the army, aided by Shi'ite militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, launched an offensive last month aimed at breaking resistance to President Bashar al-Assad around Damascus, the sources said.
"Regime troops backed by Hezbollah stormed Sbeineh. The Free Syrian Army pulled out after fierce battles over the past nine days," the Sham News Network, an opposition monitoring group, said in a statement.
Syria's 2-1/2-year-old conflict began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule, but it has transformed into a civil war with sectarian dimensions. Assad is from the country's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, which has largely stood behind him. Syria's Sunni Muslim majority has led the uprising.
Syrian state television said the army had achieved "complete control" over Sbeineh, which it called "a hotbed for militants and a supply center for weapons and ammunition".
"They headed in the direction of Hajar al-Aswad and al-Qadam and the surrounding areas, and we will pursue them there," an army officer said, referring to the rebel fighters who fled following the battle.
The officer was speaking to Syrian television in a live broadcast from Sbeineh, where shattered buildings and deserted bunkers made of sand bags and metal barrels showed the intensity of the fighting in the area, which has been under siege for months.
Assad's army has been using a blockade tactic against the rebel-held suburbs that ring the capital. The forces have slowly advanced as they try to drain the rebels - and the civilians that live among them - of food and supplies.
Sbeineh, comprised of residential buildings and a large industrial zone, is situated on the highway linking Damascus to the Jordanian border, and is adjacent to Hajar al-Aswad, a southern district on the outskirts of the capital. Opposition sources have said that Nusra Front leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, was living in the town but it was not clear if he was still there.
Over the last few weeks southern Damascus has been hit by heavy rocket and artillery barrages while the Shi'ite militias in the nearby district of Saida Zainab conducted most of the street fighting, diplomatic and rebel sources said.
Speaking from southern Damascus, activist Rami al-Sayyed said rebel defenses were exposed when loyalist forces easily infiltrated a front manned by fighters operating under the military council command, an Arab- and Western- backed rebel formation based in Turkey.
"The rebels began to find themselves encircled and had to pull out. Sbeineh was key to the defense of the southern neighborhoods. Hajar al-Aswad is now vulnerable," Sayyed said.
While Assad has been relying more on his militia allies, fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant, which is heavily comprised of foreign jihadists, have joined Islamist rebel brigades and Free Syrian Army units to defend southern Damascus, opposition sources said.
The Iranian Mehr news agency said on Monday that Mohammad Jamalizadeh, a commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard, was killed in Syria in the last few days after volunteering to defend the Saida Zainab shrine, a few kilometers to the east of Sbeineh.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Editing by Angus MacSwan)