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Syrian army advances south in Deraa

The Syrian army has overtaken the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen, previously controlled by the Nusra Front, in Deraa province
A member of the Syrian government forces looks at enemy positions from the Fatima hill overlooking the town of Kfar Shams, north of the southern Syrian city of Deraa on 1 March 2015 (AFP)

Syrian government forces have seized a military base controlled by rebels and battled fighters in a key opposition-held town in the south, a monitor and state media said.

Syria's state news agency SANA said on Tuesday that government troops had seized the Brigade 82 base and were clashing with rebels inside the town of Sheikh Miskeen in Deraa province.

Middle East Eye reporter Abu Bakr al-Haj Ali said that the Syrian forces had been trying to capture Brigade 82 since October.

"The Syrian forces advanced under the cover of heavy Russian bombardment," Haj Ali said.

He added that the opposition groups in the area fired missiles on government-held sites such as Ta'leh military hospital and the Bard and Ziqaq checkpoints. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the advances, saying army forces backed by fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah were engaged in fierce clashes backed by air strikes.

The UK-based group said government forces took the northern part of Sheikh Miskeen on Monday and seized the base on Tuesday.

The Observatory's director, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the town, the fourth largest in Syria's south, was strategically important because of its location on a crossroads leading north to Damascus and east to the city of Sweida, both of which are under government control.

It also lies some 12km from the rebel stronghold of Nawa, another key target for government forces.

Rebel groups, including al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, had been in control of Sheikh Miskeen and Brigade 82 since last year.

Most of Deraa province is controlled by opposition forces, though the government holds parts of the provincial capital and a few villages in the northwest of the province.

In June, the Southern Front group launched an operation in an attempt to take control of the entire city of Deraa. 

Fighters managed to seize control of two checkpoints and block a main supply route for the Syrian government forces that links Damascus to the Jordanian capital Amman.

Deraa is often considered the "cradle" of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that began with protests in March 2011.

Since then, more than 250,000 people have been killed in a complex, multi-front war that has displaced more than half the country's population.

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