BEIRUT - Syrian government troops supported by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah took control of a strategic crossroads Monday in far western Syria and reopened the country's main highway to the coast, according to state-run Syrian media and rebel activists.
The capture of the town of Nabek from rebels trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad is considered critical to transporting the remnants of Syria's chemical weapons stores out of the country for destruction.
Syrian state television reported the capture happened Sunday, but Assad-sympathetic news outlets in neighboring Lebanon said the town was brought completely under control after the eastern section was captured Monday.
Nabek, a suburb of Damascus, sits along the main highway to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, where international experts have said Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles will need to be loaded onto ships for disposal.
The head of the global chemical weapons watchdog group said Monday that fighting could delay the transfer of the most dangerous chemical weapons - scheduled for destruction by Dec. 31 - but that their destruction would meet the final deadline of the middle of 2014.
"In view of the circumstances in this country, it will be quite difficult to meet this timeline," Ahmet Uzumcu, in Oslo on Tuesday to accept the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, told a news conference. "There are very demanding time lines that we want to fulfill, and I'm confident that the deadline of end of June next year will be met."
The capture of Nabek came three weeks into an operation mounted by Syrian army troops, members of the National Defense Force, a militia of regime loyalists, and Hezbollah's Shiite fighters to clear rebels from the Qalamoun region along Syria's mountainous border with Lebanon. Government forces, backed by heavy air and artillery bombardment, have driven rebels from most of the area, with the exception of the rebel-held town of Yabroud.
Rebel forces were expected to counterattack, though their ability to launch a major offensive was expected to be hampered by what forecasters say may be the most powerful winter storm to hit the region in a decade.