DAMASCUS: President Bashar Assad’s troops drove rebel fighters out of his Latakia home province Monday as U.N. inspectors began probing the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
As the U.N. team left their Damascus hotel for an undisclosed destination, Jordan said it was receiving U.S. technical assistance to prepare for any possible chemical warfare in neighbouring Syria.
On the diplomatic front, top Russian and U.S. officials are to meet in The Hague next week to discuss preparations for a long-delayed international peace conference on the 29-month-old conflict, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.
Syrian state news agency SANA, meanwhile, said the army recaptured territory in northern Latakia, including a remote mountainous region where rebels launched operations this month.
“The army retook control of the Nabi Ashia mountain range and adjoining areas in the north of Latakia province,” SANA quoted a military source as saying.
Rebels in remote enclaves in Latakia’s mountains launched an offensive in the region about two weeks ago.
Over the past two weeks, rebel forces – mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority – seized several Alawite villages near Qardaha, hometown of Assad’s late father and longtime president Hafez Assad who is also buried there.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the army retook nine villages and military checkpoints set up by rebels in the area.
“The army has made progress” in Latakia, said the Britain-based group, which relies on a network of medics and activists on the ground.
But a Syrian security source told AFP the army had yet to recapture the Salma region bordering Turkey that has been in rebel hands since late last year.
A team of more than 10 inspectors arrived in Damascus Sunday to begin their hard-won mission, which U.N. officials have said will last two weeks.
They were not in their hotel Monday, an AFP journalist at the scene said. The U.N. spokesman in Syria, Khaled al-Masri, and security officials refused to elaborate on where they had gone.
The inspectors are expected to travel to Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo, where the regime and rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons on March 19.They are also expected to investigate Otaibeh near Damascus, where an attack was reported in March, and Homs, where chemical weapons are suspected to have been used on Dec. 23.
The mission had been repeatedly delayed over differences with Assad’s regime concerning the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms.
Syria last year admitted having chemical weapons but said it would never turn them against its own people.
The U.N. mission was cautiously welcomed by the opposition Syrian National Coalition, which stressed that inspectors “must go to all areas where there have been [chemical] attacks.”
“Although the Coalition trusts the mission’s impartiality, it will be difficult for it to reach real results, because the regime is known for manipulating evidence,” a statement said.
Across the border in Jordan, Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur said the United States was helping Amman to prepare for any chemical warfare.
“We are ready for the possibilities of chemical wars. U.N. investigators are in Syria now, so apparently there are chemical weapons,” Nsur told reporters. “U.S. teams are helping Jordan with this. They provide training and other things should something happen, God forbid.”