DAMASCUS, Feb.20 (Xinhua) -- Syrian government troops have continued advances around a key city in central Homs province amid reports that rebel forces are planning a counter offensive in southern Syria, local media reported.
The army carried out a series of operations against rebel positions in the areas of al-Sahel, Mushrifeh, and Rima, all surrounding the rebel stronghold of Yabrud, the pro-government al- Watan daily reported Thursday.
The operations started almost a week ago as a prelude to an anticipated major military offensive against rebels inside Yabrud.
Yabrud, 80 km north of the capital Damascus, is a major stronghold of armed rebels, with its location on the slopes of the mountainous Qalamoun region and its proximity to the Lebanese town of Ersal, which makes it easy for rebels to get weapons inside Syria and to seek medical treatment in Lebanon.
The town's rugged terrain and ancient caves have given the rebels cover from government air raids. By recapturing Yabrud, Syrian government forces could take control of the international road connecting Damascus with central Homs and the coastal provinces, and deter the flow of car bombs into Lebanon, military experts said.
Yabrud's open road to Ersal has facilitated the transit of booby-trapped cars into Lebanon, where a series of suicide car bombings recently rocked the southern suburb of Beirut, the stronghold of the Shiite Hezbollah militant group.
Hezbollah fighters are reportedly battling al-Qaida-inspired rebels alongside the Syrian troops in central Syria.
Meanwhile, opposition fighters are reportedly planning a large- scale offensive against the government-controlled countryside of Damascus, to break a government siege and to halt their progress in central Syria, according to local media.
The Lebanese al-Manar TV, along with pro-government Syrian TV outlets, said some Western and Arab countries are stepping up support for rebels in Syria, mainly in the southern province of Daraa, which borders Jordan.
There have been reports that thousands of Syrian rebels are getting special training in camps on the Syrian-Jordanian borders to wage attacks on Damascus, which is only about 98 km from Daraa.
Last November, government forces thwarted a rebel offensive and killed hundreds of opposition fighters as they stream into Daraa from Jordan. That episode has strengthened the conviction that there was a scheme being crafted in the southern region.
Talk of an imminent attack against Damascus from the southern rim has surfaced with the advances of government forces in the al- Qalamoun region.
In another recent development, the pan-Arab al-Mayadeen TV repoted Wednesday that that many radical rebels were either killed or taken into custody during "intense clashes" with government troops in the vicinity of the military's Chemistry Battalion between the provinces of Daraa and Sweida.
The rebels have also attacked several towns in the southern al- Qunaitera province, but were later defeated by government forces.