Syria troops close in on suburbs hit by chemical attack

Last Updated: Friday, October 25, 2013 - 11:26

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.

Meanwhile, the opposition said it would meet November 9 to decide whether to attend a proposed peace conference the United Nations is trying to convene in Geneva parallel with chemical disarmament efforts.

Syria is set to submit a detailed plan for destroying its chemical arsenal Thursday, part of a UN-backed disarmament bid that averted US military strikes after the deadly August 21 sarin gas attack.

A military source said troops had recaptured Hteitit al-Turkman, describing it as an "important centre 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 the army for months, which were targeted in the August chemical attack.

Damascus denies US allegations it carried out the attack.

Meanwhile, Syrian authorities were gradually restoring power to some provinces after rebels attacked a gas pipeline causing blackouts across the country, officials said.

A huge fire near the airport, where a key power plant is located, was extinguished overnight.

Elsewhere, Kurdish fighters battled jihadists for several hours as they advanced on a border crossing with Iraq held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al-Qaeda affiliate present in both countries.

In the central city of Homs a car bomb killed at least one person and wounded 43, state television reported.

Some 115,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes since a brutal crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests in March 2011 was brutally repressed and escalated into civil war.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Damascus was due to hand over its disarmament plan by Thursday, in line with a US-Russian accord to destroy Syria`s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.

A joint UN-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 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 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.

Leaders of the National Coalition -- the opposition umbrella group -- insist they will 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 US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has built up a close relationship with opposition leaders, met key figures in Istanbul on Wednesday 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.

Coalition member Samir Nashar, said the opposition would meet on November 9 to decide whether to attend.

On the humanitarian front the patriarch of the Maronite Church, Bechara Boutros Rai, said he has asked for Qatari mediation to help secure the release of two bishops abducted in April.

Rai said he made the request after Qatar played a key role in the weekend release of Lebanese hostages held in Syria in exchange for two Turkish pilots abducted in Lebanon.

Under that deal, Syria has freed 64 women prisoners and 64 more should walk free by the end of the week, rights activist Sima Nassar said.

Aleppo`s Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yaziji and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim were seized by armed men in April near the northern city of Aleppo.

No group has claimed responsibility, but sources at the Greek Orthodox Church have said the kidnappers were "Chechen jihadists."

Meanwhile, Interfax news agency said Moscow is probing reports that a Russian citizen was abducted in Syria after a video showing a man pleading to be rescued was posted online.

AFP

First Published: Friday, October 25, 2013 - 11:26

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