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Bashar Assad's forces reportedly take key Syria township

Some rebels dispute that the supply hub of Otaiba, east of Damascus, has fallen to the government.

April 25, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times
  • Syrian soldiers aim their weapons in Otaiba, east of Damascus. The government reportedly has seized the key supply hub of rebels.
Syrian soldiers aim their weapons in Otaiba, east of Damascus. The government… (Syrian Arab News Agency…)

BEIRUT — The Syrian government says its forces this week seized a strategic township east of Damascus after weeks of fighting, but some opposition activists dispute the asserted regime victory.

Several official Syrian press outlets reported that government troops had assumed "total control" of Otaiba, considered an important supply hub for opposition forces based in the Ghouta region.

Forces opposed to President Bashar Assad's government have for months been closing in on Damascus, the capital, from suburban and rural areas. But the government has maintained tight control of the city and mostly managed to keep insurgents out.

Rebels based near the capital regularly fire mortar rounds into the city and occasionally get car bombs inside, authorities say. But such weapons have caused many indiscriminate civilian deaths and have outraged many residents without substantially weakening the government's position.

The capture of Otaiba would be the latest in a string of recent reported successes for government forces, who have been pushing back against opposition fighters in several regions of Syria.

Government forces reportedly have made recent gains near Damascus and in the Syria-Lebanon border region, another important supply corridor for opposition arms and manpower.

On Thursday, the official news agency reported that the military had inflicted "heavy losses" outside the capital during battles in the Jobar, Zamalka and Barzeh areas, all considered strongholds of the armed opposition.

Rebels control large swaths of northern and eastern Syria, while the government still holds most urban areas, the strategic corridor between Damascus and the central city of Homs, and the coastal strip along the Mediterranean, which includes the port cities of Tartus and Latakia. Other areas of the country remain heavily contested more than two years after the start of the Syrian uprising.

Government and opposition forces have been fighting for more than nine months for control of the northern city of Aleppo, but are in a stalemate.

The official press in Syria heralded the government seizure of Otaiba as a major victory against "terrorists," the regime's term for armed rebels seeking to overthrow Assad.

The official Al Thawra newspaper reported that government troops had found tunnels "utilized by the terrorists for transport and hiding and to store weapons and ammunition."

Various reports have indicated that rebels have used tunnels and basements in the Damascus area as hide-outs and shelters from government artillery and aerial bombardment. The government has said that rebels utilized tunnels during the battle for Dariya, a southern suburb of the capital that the military has largely overrun after months of fighting, though the opposition says some of its forces remain in Dariya.

An opposition activist reached via Skype in Damascus disputed the report that government troops had seized control of Otaiba. She said battles continue in the township and that some rebels had returned after falling back during the military onslaught.

"Fighting is still going on, and now the rebel forces have redeployed," said the activist, who declined to be identified for safety reasons. "It's becoming like Dariya. Fighting is taking place every day there."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman, Jordan.

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