Middle East

Syria troops retake key town outside Damascus

Syrian troops celebrating in the town of Kasab June 15, 2014. (AFP Photo/SANA)

DAMASCUS: Syrian government forces retook a key town on the outskirts of the capital Damascus Thursday after a months-long battle against rebels, a military source and state television said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group backed up the report.

"The army, with the cooperation of the National Defense Forces (militia), has accomplished its mission of restoring stability and security to Mliha," the army command said in a statement.

It added that troops carried out "a series of crucial operations killing a large number of takfiri (Islamist extremist) mercenaries who had barricaded themselves in the town."

"This is a tough blow to the takfiri terrorists who have begun to fall in the face of the successive blows dealt to them by the army," it said.

The army said Mliha would now serve as a springboard for its bid to regain control of Eastern Ghouta, an important rebel bastion outside Damascus that has long been in the sights of government forces.

State television broadcast live from Mliha, showing streets with holes punched through homes by rockets and twisted metal from telephone line poles.

Mliha lies southeast of the capital and has been a key flashpoint in fighting around Damascus.

Government troops, backed at times by fighters from the allied Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, have been battling there since April.

The area has been under siege for more than a year, and under near-constant bombardment by government forces.

The chief of Syria's air defense forces, Gen. Hussein Isaac, was killed in fighting there in May.

"Taking back Mliha would allow the regime to protect parts of Damascus from rebel rocket fire on the capital," Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

"It is also the gateway to Eastern Ghouta," he added.

While the government retains firm control over Damascus, rebels have several rear bases around the city, from which they regularly launch rockets.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory said Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) jihadists had beheaded at least nine opposition fighters Wednesday night, after seizing several northern villages.

The extremist group, which has been battling other Islamist and moderate rebel groups in large parts of Syria, took control of eight villages between the Turkish border and the northern city of Aleppo Wednesday.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground, said at least 40 rebels were killed in the fighting, along with 12 ISIS militants.

Another 50 rebels were taken prisoner by the jihadists, and the Observatory said Thursday that nine had been beheaded in Akhatarin, which was captured in the ISIS advance.

ISIS grew from Al-Qaeda's one-time Iraqi branch and originally fought alongside Syria's rebel groups, but it has been denounced by Al-Qaeda's leader and other opposition groups have turned against it.

In January, a coalition of Islamist and moderate opposition fighters began battling ISIS, forcing it to retreat for a time to its stronghold in Raqqa province.

But with the capture of large swath of Iraqi territory across the border as well as heavy military equipment, the group has since managed to regain some lost ground in Syria.





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