DAMASCUS: Syrian troops captured a key town southeast of Damascus on Thursday, a military source said, as they sought to close in on suburbs struck by chemical weapons in August.
The Syrian opposition meanwhile said it would meet on Nov. 9 to decide whether to attend a Geneva peace conference that the United Nations is trying to convene in parallel with chemical disarmament efforts.
Syria is set to hand over a detailed plan for destroying its chemical arsenal Thursday, part of a U.N.-backed disarmament bid that averted U.S. military strikes after the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack, which killed hundreds of people.
A military source told AFP that troops had recaptured Hteitit al-Turkman, describing it as an “important center for the terrorists,” the regime’s term for the rebels.
The operation was part of a larger effort to close in on eastern Ghouta, a ring of suburbs besieged by government troops for months, which were targeted in the August chemical attack.
Damascus has denied U.S. allegations it carried out the attack.
Syrian authorities were meanwhile working to restore power after rebels attacked a gas pipeline Wednesday, causing blackouts across the country and setting off a huge fire near the airport, where a key power plant is located.
Electricity Minister Imad Khamis said Thursday that the fire had been extinguished and that power was being “gradually” restored to some provinces, according to the official SANA news agency.
Elsewhere in Syria, Kurdish fighters battled with jihadists for several hours as they advanced on a border crossing with Iraq held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, an Al-Qaeda affiliate that operates in both countries.
And in the central city of Homs a car bomb killed at least one person and wounded 43, state television reported.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Syria was expected to hand over its disarmament plan by Thursday, the latest step in a U.S.-Russian accord which calls for all Syria’s chemical weapons and production facilities to be destroyed by mid-2014.
A U.N.-OPCW team, in Syria since the start of the month, has inspected 18 of 23 declared sites, destroying production equipment in almost all of them.Sweden said Thursday it would aid the disarmament effort by providing an air force unit and a Lockheed C-130 military transport plane, to be based in Cyprus.
But parallel efforts by the United Nations to convene a peace conference in Geneva next month have run into resistance from the fractured opposition, which is insisting on a raft of preconditions.
The United States seeks to bring opposition to the table Leaders of the National Coalition – the main opposition umbrella group – have insisted they would not attend unless regime change and Assad’s departure are on the table.
A meeting in London Tuesday between opposition leaders and diplomats from the Friends of Syria group produced little more than a joint statement that Assad should play no future role in government.
Behind the scenes Wednesday U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has built up a close relationship with opposition leaders, met key figures in Istanbul to try to coax them to the negotiating table.
“Their participation is pivotal. We will continue encouraging them to attend, and that’s why Ambassador Ford’s on the ground talking to them right now in Istanbul,” said deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
National Coalition member Samir Nashar, said the opposition would hold internal deliberations on Nov. 9 before coming to a final decision.
Also Turkey’s foreign minister deplored what he called an international failure to tackle the humanitarian crisis in war-ridden Syria Thursday, saying food and medicine are running out and snipers are shooting pregnant women.
Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey, which has received more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, would keep its border with Syria open to people fleeing the violence but said the world needed to share the humanitarian burden.
“I have to express our deep disappointment and frustration because of the absence of a proper reaction by the international community regarding the humanitarian situation on the ground,” Davutoglu told reporters in Kuwait during a bilateral visit.
“Those who can come to Turkey, they are the lucky ones, those who are back in Syria, they do not have anything to eat, they do not have hospitals, medicines, anything,” the foreign minister said.
“Snipers are shooting pregnant ladies,” he said, citing recent media reports. Civilians without access to food are being forced to eat cat and dog meat to survive, Davutoglu said at a news conference with his Kuwaiti counterpart.
Kuwait, which plans to host an international humanitarian aid conference for Syria in January, said countries bordering Syria were struggling to cope with the stream of displaced people and warned of violence spilling over Syrian borders.
“The situation in Syria is very dangerous, this is as we warned from the beginning, because the blood will not be contained in Syria but will spread into the region,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Hamad al-Sabah said. “ Syria is sliding toward becoming a rogue state, a failed state, a state where extremist ideas, drugs, weapons and outlaws spread.”