BEIRUT: Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad Sunday secured the highway that links Damascus with northern Syria, an activist group and two pro-government TV stations said, paving the way for the potential shipment of chemical weapons overland to a port for destruction abroad.
Government troops launched an offensive last month in the rugged Qalamoun region north of Damascus in an attempt to secure the main north-south highway that runs through the area and to cut rebel supply lines that crisscross the mountainous terrain.
Fighting in the area had left the road cut for nearly three weeks, but government forces reopened the road Sunday after seizing control of most of the contested town of Nabk that is located along the highway, said the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman.
“It is open but not secure,” Abdel-Rahman said, adding the route remained “dangerous” because it was still under rebel fire.
Two Lebanon-based, pro-Assad TV stations, Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, reported that the Damascus-Homs highway had been secured by the army. Both stations have several reporters in Syria.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is leading the U.N.-backed mission to rid Syria of its chemical weapons program, said last week it would consider using the highway to transport Syria’s arsenal to the port of Latakia before taking the weapons out of the country for destruction.
Dutch diplomat Sigrid Kaag, who leads the joint United Nations-OPCW mission in Syria, said the highway was closed recently as she visited the port of Latakia in a helicopter.
“To get the material to port, it is necessary that roads are open and are safe and secure to use,” Kaag said last week.
The U.N.-OPCW team in Syria aims to remove the most toxic chemicals from Syria by the end of the year for destruction at sea and destroy the entire program by mid-2014.
Sunday’s fighting focused in the town of Nabk near the Lebanon border. Syrian troops backed by members of Hezbollah managed to capture most of the town in heavy fighting, the Observatory said.
Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar aired videos from inside the town showing bodies of fighters in the streets as well as four booby-trapped vehicles.
Activists said Sunday forces loyal to Assad shot dead at least five children when they entered the town’s industrial area.
Opposition activist Hadi Abdullah posted a photo on his Twitter account showing two boys and a girl who he said were killed in Nabk.
The Observatory, which relies on activists and medics on the ground for its information, said regime troops had “executed five civilians, including two children,” in the town.
Activists said they were able to transport the bodies to Yabroud, a nearby area held by rebels.
The reports could not be independently verified.
In the jihadist-held northern city of Raqqa, regime air raids killed 18 Saturday, the Observatory said Sunday, updating an earlier toll of 14.
The strikes – eight in total – hit the northeastern city early Saturday afternoon. Five women and six children were among the dead.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group documented 123 people killed, the majority civilian, across the country Saturday.
A conference in Geneva planned for next month aims to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, which has killed an estimated 126,000 people.
On Sunday, a key member of the opposition National Coalition said a “final” decision to attend or boycott a U.N.-backed talked, dubbed Geneva II, would be taken later this month.The coalition, an opposition umbrella group increasingly at odds with rebels on the ground, has previously said it would attend the Geneva talks slated for Jan. 22 but with conditions.
Crucially, it insists that Assad play no role in Syria’s future – a demand strongly rejected by Damascus.
“A final decision will be taken during a meeting of the coalition in mid-December in Istanbul,” opposition member George Sabra told AFP in Doha.
However he added that there was no certainty the conference would go ahead.
“I have doubts that the conference will take place,” said Sabra, who heads the Syrian National Council [SNC], the largest member of the Coalition.
“No one will dare go to Geneva without consulting with the forces on the ground who retain the real power” to negotiate, he said.
FSA chief Gen. Salim Idriss has said he would be ready to go to Geneva for the talks if a string of demands are met, including Assad stepping aside.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Saturday that invitations to attend the peace talks would be distributed to Syrian opposition and government officials on Dec. 20.