Syrian troops have recaptured the strategic town of Deir Attiyeh, less than a week after losing it, taking the advantage in their 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 neighbouring Lebanon.
The regime’s gain on Thursday 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 is demanding 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 the AFP news agency, saying the town had been “cleansed” and that “operations to expel the terrorists from nearby areas are ongoing”.
The UK-based 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 Nabek.
“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 armed groups.
Lebanese Shia Hezbollah armed group has been fighting alongside Assad troops in the Qalamoun region and elsewhere in Syria. Thousands of fighters are believed to have crossed into the country from Lebanon in the recent weeks.
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.
In the city of 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.
Around Marj, in the capital’s eastern suburbs, the Observatory said 11 rebels were killed.
Further east, in the Euphrates valley city of Raqqa, an overnight missile attack by regime troops left several killed and dozens injured, activists reported.
Raqqa is the only provincial capital lost to the regime since the uprising against Assad’s regime erupted in March 2011.
More than 120,000 people have been reported killed in Syria since in the 32 month-old conflict.