Syrian forces recapture strategic border town

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces have recaptured the western border town of Deir Attiyeh, less than a week after rebel forces had seized it in a counteroffensive, according to Syrian state television.

Deir Attiyeh, with about 10,000 residents and a significant Christian minority, is viewed as a vital link on the main highway between Damascus, the seat of power of President Bashar Assad, and the city of Homs in the center of the country. It is also part of a strategic supply corridor for rebel forces.

Quoting a military source, the state Syrian Arab News Agency said that "units of our brave army have secured their complete control of the town of Deir Attiyeh, after intensified unique operations that were characterized by the speed and accuracy with which they destroyed the last enclaves of terrorists in the city." The government routinely refers to rebel armed opposition groups as terrorists.

The source went on to say that army units also engaged armed groups that were "attempting to sneak into the Qalamoun area from the Lebanese town of Arsal." Deir Attiyeh is about 15 miles from the Lebanese border in the mountainous Qalamoun region.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as well as opposition activists confirmed the report, saying that the government security forces had wrested control of the town from several rebel groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Al Nusra Front.

The fighting has already forced large numbers of Syrians to seek refuge across the border in Arsal. "We currently have over 18,000 Syrians who have come in the past 10 days," said Deputy Mayor Ahmad Faliti. However, none have come from Deir Attiyeh. "We have had no one from there because it is still surrounded," Faliti explained.

Meanwhile, at least one person was killed and nine injured when a mortar round struck the Russian Embassy in Damascus on Thursday, according to Russian news media quoting a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Another mortar round exploded just outside the embassy compound, the Foreign Ministry said.

The Syrian army had launched an offensive in the Qalamoun region last month in a bid to secure the country's western border and stanch the flow of fighters and weapons from Lebanon. It is part of a larger offensive that has seen government forces retake strategic towns around Damascus and Aleppo. Reeling from some of the recent losses, seven leading rebel groups joined forces last week under the banner of the Islamic Front.

The move is widely seen as a push to make gains before the much-delayed Geneva 2 conference, which was set this week by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Jan. 22. The initiative, sponsored by the United States and Russia, would mark the first time Syrian government and opposition representatives came together to try to bring an end to the Syrian crisis, now in its 32nd month.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition group, has confirmed that it will attend Geneva 2 but in a statement released Thursday rejected the government's unwillingness to participate in a "Geneva conference based on the transfer of power to a transitional governing body," accusing the Assad administration of "trying to cover its war on the Syrian people, while maintaining a pretense of cooperation with the international community."

On Wednesday, Syria's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that an official delegation would be sent to Geneva "not to hand over power to anyone" but to cooperate with those "who support creating a political solution for Syria's future."

The opposition has long insisted on Assad's removal as a precondition to negotiations, but the government has consistently rejected this. Assad has even hinted that he might run for reelection next year.


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Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Raja Abdulrahim in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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