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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Syrian forces seize rebel-held Damascus suburb as government bolsters its position

President Bashar Al Assad's forces have been gaining ground around Damascus since last month, storming several rebel-held suburbs and choking off supplies to others in the east and south.
Syrians inspect the site of a car bomb explosion in the central city of Homs. Sana via AFP
Syrians inspect the site of a car bomb explosion in the central city of Homs. Sana via AFP

BEIRUT // Syrian forces yesterday seized a suburb of Damascus from rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad in a push that has shored up government control of the capital’s outskirts, state television reported.

Mr Al Assad’s forces, backed by Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, have been gaining ground around Damascus since last month, storming several rebel-held suburbs and choking off supplies to others in the east and south.

Although neither side appears to have the strength to gain a decisive edge over the other in the conflict, the government’s offensive has bolstered its position ahead of expected international peace talks.

Syrian state television said the army had “extended full control” over Hatetat Al Turkman, south-east of Damascus near the airport road, cutting off an arms and ammunition supply route to rebels occupying a crescent of suburbs around the capital.

The armed forces seized the area in a 48-hour assault from five directions, the report said, showing live footage of Syrian soldiers deployed in the area.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah had assisted in the assault. Hizbollah is backed by Mr Al Assad’s ally Iran and has sent fighters into Syria to support government forces.

The pro-opposition Observatory, which verifies reports through a network of sources around Syria, said about 17 rebels were killed in the fighting, including several from groups with links to Al Qaeda such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. About 25 government fighters were killed, it said.

The United Nations says Syria’s conflict has killed more than 100,000 people. Fighting has continued despite an international deal for Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons and efforts to bring both sides to a peace conference.

Insurgents have pushed back against government gains around Damascus but have failed to regain the momentum that helped them seize some suburbs and launch bomb and rocket attacks into the city centre several months ago.

Rebels yesterday shelled the Jaramana district, a government-held area that links a ring of rebel-held suburbs and is also near the airport road, state media and rebels said.

“This area is very important to both sides,” said a rebel fighter in the area known as Anas. “Control over Jaramana means control over the airport road, and control over the airport road means destroying an important supply route for the regime.”

Rebels blew up a gas pipeline on Wednesday, knocking out power in much of Syria, including Damascus.

Outside the capital, a car bomb exploded in a heavily guarded district in the central city of Homs, killing three people and wounding about 60, a doctor at a local hospital said.

The blast was on one of the main streets in the Nozha district, inhabited by members of Mr Al Assad’s Alawite sect and guarded by paramilitary forces loyal to the government.

Residents said women and children were wounded in the blast, which occurred as pupils were leaving primary schools.

In a sign of how regionalised and entangled the conflict has become, Kurdish militants clashed with fighters from Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq over a series of villages along the northeastern border with Iraq.

Meanwhile, an activist said that Syria has freed 64 women prisoners this week, or half the number expected to be released under a weekend hostage deal.

Nine Lebanese Shiite hostages held for 17 months by a rebel group in northern Syria were exchanged on Saturday for two Turkish pilots abducted in Lebanon in August.

The release of 128 female detainees held in Syrian regime jails formed part of the deal brokered by Turkey, Qatar and Lebanon.

“Since Tuesday the Syrian authorities have released 64 of the 128 prisoners due to be freed as part of the agreement,” activist Sima Nassar said.

“We have received assurances that the others will be released by the end of the week,” she added.

The latest batch was freed on Wednesday from the notorious Adra prison, northwest of the Syrian capital, and most of them hail from Damascus province.

“Syrian authorities have ordered some prisoners to leave Syrian territory while others were given a choice to stay or leave,” she added.

Among those released were a Lebanese, two Palestinians and a Syrian who had been imprisoned because her uncle is a dissident and her father a dissident lawyer, Ms Nassar said.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse