DAMASCUS: Syrian troops recaptured the strategic town of Deir Attiyeh on Thursday (Friday in Manila), less than a week after losing it, taking the advantage in its bid to crush rebels just north of Damascus.
The seizure of Deir Attiyeh, on the Damascus-Homs highway, comes two weeks into an army offensive in the Qalamoun region, important to the regime for its proximity to the capital and to the rebels for the supply lines it offers to neighboring Lebanon.
It also comes amid intense international efforts to hold a peace conference aimed at ending the 32-month conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions.
The opposition demands that any talks should lead to a transition in which President Bashar al-Assad plays no role.
But in the run-up to the January 22 talks in Geneva, Assad’s forces appear to be pushing for leverage with as many battleground victories as possible.
“Our heroic army has taken total control of the town of Deir Attiyeh in Damascus province after it crushed the terrorists’ last enclaves there,” state television said.
A high-ranking security official confirmed the report to Agence France-Presse, saying the town had been “cleansed” and that “operations to expel the terrorists from nearby areas are ongoing.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army was now in “near-total control” of Deir Attiyeh, which had been captured by the rebels last Friday, although gunfire could still be heard.
A security source said troops had also entered the nearby town of Nabuk.
“If this town is captured, all we’ll have left is Yabroud and some other villages to completely block off the border with Lebanon and to stop any entrance or exit of rebels into Lebanon,” the source said.
“The next phase will be to retake the south [of Syria]. The north and the east are for later,” he added, referring to areas under the control of the rebels or of Kurdish militia.
Fighting rages despite ceasefire call
Also fighting in Qalamoun is Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which backs Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.
A source close to the group said a nephew of Lebanese Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, a prominent Hezbollah figure, was killed on Wednesday along with three comrades.
Fighting raged elsewhere in Syria, a day after Iran said it and Turkey, which support opposing sides in the conflict, would press for a ceasefire ahead of the Geneva 2 peace conference.
In Damascus, mortar fire hit the Russian embassy killing a Syrian and wounding nine others, the foreign ministry in Moscow said.
No Russians were hurt in the attack, one of several on the mission in recent months, which have been blamed on rebels angered by Moscow’s continued backing for Assad.
Another round struck near the parliament building.
The United States condemned the attack.
“We condemn any attack against individuals or facilities protected by international law,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“The United States continues to emphasize that those responsible for atrocities on all sides must be held accountable,” she said.
Around Marj, in the capital’s eastern suburbs, the Observatory said 11 rebels were killed.
Further east, in the Euphrates valley city of Raqa, a missile killed at least six people overnight and wounded 30 more.
Raqa is the only provincial capital lost to the regime since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
In Atareb, in Aleppo province in the north, the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant executed Hassan Jazra and six members of his Ghuraba al-Sham battalion, accusing them of theft and looting.
In areas where it has fighters on the ground, ISIL has sought to establish itself as the sole power-broker, by eliminating smaller rival groups and by forming tactical alliances with the larger ones.
In south Aleppo, bombs dropped by helicopter killed five civilians and wounded 20, the Observatory said, while six people died in air raids on the town of Tal Hafer outside the city.