Middle East

Syrian forces capture town near chemical weapons site: Activists

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad hold up their weapons as they cheer in the town of Safira November 1, 2013. REUTERS/George Ourfalian

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces have captured a northern town located near a chemical weapons site after days of heavy fighting, state media and activists said on Friday.

The town, Safira, is also located on a road that could be used to relieve government-controlled areas of Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub.

Syrian state television said government forces had taken full control of the town, which had been occupied by rebels, including some from units linked to al Qaeda.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government had seized the town on Friday morning after more than three weeks of fighting.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has teams in Syria to eliminate the country's chemical weapons arsenal, has said its teams were unable to reach two sites for inspection because they were too dangerous.

A source briefed on their operations said one of those sites was at Safira, which is southeast of Aleppo.

The chemical weapons site itself has been under government control but emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby, according to the OPCW.

Further south, fighting took place in and around the capital Damascus where the government has launched an offensive in recent months to retake rebel-held suburbs.

The Observatory said the rural town of Sbeneh, 6 km (4 miles) south of Damascus, faced shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces supported by pro-Assad militias, Hezbollah fighters and other foreign fighters.

The attack is part of government attempt to retake rural towns outside Damascus by heavy shelling from afar in conjunction with a slow but creeping blockade that has prevented food or supplies from entering the area.

Rebel-held districts on the edge of the capital, some under siege for nearly a year, have been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades.

Clashes were also reported in Mouadamiya, 8 km (5 miles) southwest of Damascus, where 1,800 civilians were evacuated on Tuesday due to the siege that doctors there has lead to widespread hunger and death from malnutrition.

Assad's forces also pounded rebel-held southern districts inside Damascus itself.

The next front in the war is expected to center on the mountainous Qalamoun area, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus and less than 10 km (6 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

One of Syria's most heavily militarised districts, Qalamoun is vital to Assad's control of the route from Damascus to the Latakia coast, a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect.

Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population has largely supported the 2-1/2 year-old revolt, while Alawites have generally stood with Assad.

Diplomats said a hospital in Qalamoun was evacuated on Friday while the University of Qalamoun closed on Thursday. A message on the university's website cited maintenance to the water system for the 10-day closure.

Fighting has sometimes damaged water and sanitation infrastructure, but activists in Damascus suspected the government is preparing to use the campus as a military base.





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