DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syrian troops recaptured the strategic town of Deir Atiyeh Thursday, less than a week after losing it, as fighting raged in the area ahead of planned peace talks in January.
The seizure of Deir Atiyeh, 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 Lebanon.
It also comes amid intense international efforts to hold the Geneva II conference aimed at ending the 32-month conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions.
The opposition demands that any talks should lead to a transition in which President Bashar Assad plays no role.
But in the run-up to the Jan. 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 Atiyeh in Damascus province after it crushed the terrorists’ last enclaves there,” state television said.The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed government forces were almost in full control of Deir Atiyeh, whose population is nearly a third Christian. The town had been captured by the rebels last Friday.
An activist in the area who uses the name Amer al-Qalamouni said troops captured the town after members of the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militia withdrew.
“They were very fierce battles and conditions for civilians there are dismal,” Qalamouni said.
The Observatory and Qalamouni said five doctors and at least four nurses were killed in the clashes over the past two days at Deir Atiyeh’s main hospital.
The Syrian state news agency SANA quoted Syria’s Health Minister Saeed al-Nayef as saying, “terrorists committed a massacre” by killing five doctors, five nurses and two ambulance drivers in Deir Atiyeh.
SANA also said that the army killed many fighters in Deir Atiyeh including Saudis, and discovered underground tunnels. Saudi Arabia has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition.
A security source said troops had also entered the nearby town of Nabk.
“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 militia.
Also fighting in Qalamoun is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which backs Assad and has sent fighters into Syria.
Fighting raged across the country, a day after Iran said it and Turkey, which support opposing sides in the conflict, would press for a cease-fire ahead of Geneva II.
In Damascus, mortar fire hit the neighborhood of the Russian Embassy, killing one Syrian and wounding nine, including members of the embassy’s guard corps, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
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. A statement said the embassy building sustained only minor damage.
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, a missile killed at least six people overnight and wounded 30 more. Raqqa is the only provincial capital lost to the regime since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
In south Aleppo, bombs dropped by helicopter killed five civilians and wounded 20, the Observatory said, while six people died in air raids on the town of Tal Hafer outside the city.
Also Thursday, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group in exile, criticized the Syrian government for saying it will participate in U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the country’s civil war, but that it is not going to the conference to hand over power.
“It has become evident that the Assad regime is trying to cover its war on the Syrian people, while maintaining a pretense of cooperation with the international community,” the coalition said.