BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army is sending reinforcements to face a major rebel offensive in Hama province, a Syrian military source told Reuters on Wednesday, as insurgents pressed an attack in a western area critically important to President Bashar al-Assad.
The assault spearheaded by jihadist fighters got under way on Tuesday and follows two big attacks on Assad's seat of power in Damascus in recent days, showing the lingering threat posed by rebels even as Assad enjoys the military upper hand in the war.
The areas of Hama province targeted in the latest assault form part of the western region of Syria where Assad has shored up his rule during the six-year-long conflict against an array of insurgents seeking to topple him.
The military source said insurgent groups had mobilised large numbers for the assault that was targeting towns including Soran, some 20 km (12 miles) north of Hama city, and Khattab, about 10 km northwest of it.
Battles were ongoing in both places, the military source said. "Reinforcements are now being sent," the source added.
The attack is being led by Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of Islamist factions dominated by a group that was formerly al Qaeda's official affiliate in the Syrian civil war. Groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner are also taking part.
An FSA rebel commander, in an interview with the pro-opposition Orient TV, said the assault that began on Tuesday had been long in the planning, and insurgents were ready for a protracted fight.
"The battle - praise God - has been prepared for a long time and all capacities have been prepared for it so that we can waged a long battle," said the FSA commander identified as a lieutenant in the Ezza Army group.
(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams)