By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Syria's armed forces said on Friday they had captured a strategic northern town at the eastern gates of Aleppo, the former commercial hub long the scene of fierce fighting between government and rebel fighters.

The town of Safira lies on a road the army said would be used to send in medicine and supplies to government-controlled areas of Aleppo, mired in a bloody stalemate for over a year. It is also the site of a chemical weapons installation under government control and cleared of equipment.

The capture of Safira is significant in that it marks a rare victory for Assad's forces near the mostly rebel-held north. Opposition groups confirmed the army's seizure of the city, southeast of Aleppo.

"Our heroic armed forces gained full control over the town of Safira after a series of strategic operations... The importance of this new success for our armed forces is due to its strategic importance at the eastern gates of Aleppo," a spokesman for the Syrian army said in a televised statement.

The conflict in Syria, now more than 2-1/2-years old, has long been in stalemate but Assad's forces have been making slow advances in the centre of the country and near the capital since they captured a strategic border town near Lebanon with the help of the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government had seized the town on Friday morning after more than three weeks of fighting.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has teams in Syria to eliminate the country's chemical weapons arsenal, has said its teams were unable to reach two sites for inspection because they were too dangerous.

A source briefed on their operations said one of those sites was at Safira.

The chemical weapons site itself has been under government control but emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby, according to the OPCW.


ASSAD ADVANCES ON REBEL AREAS

Further south, fighting took place in and around the capital Damascus where the government has launched an offensive in recent months to retake rebel-held suburbs.

The Observatory said the rural town of Sbeneh, 6 km (4 miles) south of Damascus, faced shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces supported by pro-Assad militias, Hezbollah fighters and other foreign fighters.

The attack is part of government attempt to retake rural towns outside Damascus by heavy shelling from afar in conjunction with a slow but creeping blockade that has prevented food or supplies from entering the area.

Rebel-held districts on the edge of the capital, some under siege for nearly a year, have been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades.

The next front in the war is expected to centre on the mountainous Qalamoun area, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus, less than 10 km (6 miles) from the Lebanese border.

One of Syria's most heavily militarised districts, Qalamoun is vital to Assad's control of the route from Damascus to the Latakia coast, a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect.

Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population has largely supported the uprising, while Alawites have generally stood with Assad.

Diplomats said a hospital in Qalamoun was evacuated on Friday while the University of Qalamoun closed on Thursday. A message on the university's website cited maintenance to the water system for the 10-day closure.

Fighting has sometimes damaged water and sanitation infrastructure, but activists in Damascus suspected the government is preparing to use the campus as a military base.

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  • A man carries the body of a child allegedly killed by a pro-government forces sniper in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on October 2, 2013. At least 115,206 people have been killed in Syria's devastating 30-month conflict, most of them fighters from both sides, a monitoring group said on October 1. (KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A female rebel fighter fixes the scope of her Belgium made FAL rifle as she attends a training session at the Salaheddin district of the war-battered northern Syrian city of Aleppo on October 2, 2013. (KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 photo, opposition fighters, sons of Mohammed Kale, walk at the frontline on the outskirts of Kfar Lata, a ghost village on the top of a mountain subdued under heavy shelling and bombardments due the fighting between opposition fighters and government forces in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 photo, Mohammed Kale sits with his family at home in Kfar Lata, a ghost village in a top of a mountain subdued under heavy shelling and bombardments due the fighting between opposition fighters and government forces in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 photo, the wife of Mohammed Kale stands with her granddaughter and grandson in the yard of her family house in Kfar Lata, a ghost village in a top of a mountain subdued under heavy shelling and bombardments due the fighting between opposition fighters and government forces in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 photo, a granddaughter of Mohammed Kale picks up dry clothes from a laundry line at her family house in Kfar Lata, a ghost village at the top of a mountain subdued under heavy shelling and bombardments due the fighting between opposition fighters and government forces in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

  • This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows damaged buildings due to heavy fighting between government forces and Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)

  • Syrian refugees from the Idlib province are seen in the ruins of the ancient Byzantine-Christian city of Serjilla, in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of the northwestern province, on October 8, 2013, where many families are residing after they fled their homes due to the ongoing conflict between government and opposition forces. ( MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A Syrian refugee sleeps under a make-shift shelter in the ruins of the ancient Byzantine-Christian city of Serjilla, in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of the northwestern province, on October 8, 2013, where many families are residing after they fled their homes due to the ongoing conflict between government and opposition forces. (MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Syrian refugees are seen in the ruins of the ancient Byzantine-Christian city of Serjilla, in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of the northwestern province, on October 8, 2013, where they are residing after they fled their homes due to the ongoing conflict between government and opposition forces. (MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Masked female rebel fighters walk alongside their trainer in a street at the Salaheddin district of the war-battered northern Syrian city of Aleppo on October 8, 2013. (KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 photo, night falls as smoke rises from the battlefield at the frontline in Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

  • In this Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 photo, smoke rises from the battlefield as opposition fighters carry out an attack on the Wadi al-Deef military post at the frontline in Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

  • Syrian residents walk by demolished buildings after a warplane bombed the residential area in Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • An abandoned Ferris wheel is seen among buildings damaged by fighting between opposition fighters and Syrian government forces in Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 file photo, A Syrian refugee boy sits on the ground at a temporary refugee camp, in the eastern Lebanese Town of Al-Faour, Bekaa valley near the border with Syria, Lebanon. With some 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, or nearly 25 percent of the tiny Arab country's population, the guests from Lebanon's eastern neighbor are facing different kinds of racist behaviors by Lebanese. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

  • In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 file photo, A Syrian refugee girl washes rice outside her tent at a temporary refugee camp, in the eastern Lebanese Town of Al-Faour, Bekaa valley near the border with Syria, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

  • A Syrian refugee sits next to luggage at the entrance of the International Organization for Migration office as she waits with her family to board a bus to Beirut International Airport for a flight to Germany where they have been accepted for temporary resettlement, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • Syrian refugees sit next to their luggage at the office of the International Organization for Migration while waiting with their family to board a bus to Beirut International Airport for a flight to Germany where they have been accepted for temporary resettlement, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • Syrian refugees flash victory signs at the International Organization for Migration office as they wait with their family to board a bus to Beirut International Airport for a flight to Germany where they have been accepted for temporary resettlement, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • A physically disabled Syrian refugee sits in his wheelchair at the International Organization for Migration office as he waits with his family to board a bus to Beirut International Airport for a flight to Germany where they have been accepted for temporary resettlement, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

  • In this citizen journalism Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, file image provided by the United Media office of Arbeen, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, members of a chemical weapons investigation team with blue helmets speak with Syrian rebels in Damascus' countryside of Zamalka, Syria. (AP Photo/United Media office of Arbeen, File)