Syria Army Backed by Hizbullah Retakes Key Rebel Town near Damascus

Syrian troops backed by Lebanon's Hizbullah fighters and other pro-regime militiamen retook a major rebel enclave south of Damascus on Thursday, severing a key opposition supply line.

The recapture, reported by a monitoring group and state television, was part of a broader army campaign that has seen a string of towns in the area fall into regime hands.

In France, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there was "fairly recent" proof that four French journalists kidnapped in Syria are alive.

And in The Hague, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said inspectors had verified all but one of Syria's 23 declared chemical weapons sites.

The regime's recapture of Sbeineh, a key rebel stronghold south of Damascus, comes nine days into campaign aimed at cutting off one of the main rebel supply lines into southern Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Closer to the capital, government troops have besieged a number of rebel-held suburbs for months, and U.N. officials have expressed concern over reports of trapped civilians and severe malnutrition.

"Sbeineh was one of the most important rebel positions on Damascus's outskirts," the Britain-based group's director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"Rebels in southern Damascus have now had practically all their supply routes cut off," he said.

State television also reported the takeover.

"Our brave army has taken control of... the Sbeineh (area)... and (the nearby village) of Ghazalah in Damascus province after crushing the last terrorist positions there," said the broadcaster, using the regime's term for the rebels.

The takeover of Sbeineh, a rear base for rebels in southern Damascus, comes a year into a suffocating army siege of the town.

"The army was backed by fighters from Hezbollah, the pro-regime paramilitary National Defense Force as well as Syrian and non-Syrian Shiite fighters from the Abul Fadl al-Abbas brigade," Abdel Rahman said.

"There are fears for the lives of civilians in Sbeineh. Experience tells us that the army may well execute civilians and put the blame on rebels," he said.

The recapture comes weeks after regime forces captured nearby Husseiniyeh, Ziabiyeh and Bweida.

Abdel Rahman said the army has been able to advance in part because of "divisions among the rebels."

He said both sides suffered heavy losses in the fighting, and that "the fight south of Damascus is more sectarian than elsewhere."

The burial site of Sayyida Zeinab, granddaughter of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, is an important Shiite shrine located in southeastern Damascus, near several areas held by the mainly Sunni rebels.

Seasoned Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon and troops from Iraq, who have long been helping to defend the shrine, are now actively fighting on behalf of the regime of President Bashar Assad, who hails from Syria's Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In France, Fabius said there was "fairly recent" proof that four journalists kidnapped in two separate incidents in Syria are alive.

On June 6, unknown men detained Didier Francois, a seasoned war reporter for Europe 1 radio, and Edouard Elias, a photographer, at a checkpoint as the pair travelled to the country's second city of Aleppo.

On June 22, reporter Nicolas Henin, 37, and photographer Pierre Torres, 29, were seized while working in the northern city of Raqa.

The OPCW said its inspectors had verified all but one of the country's declared chemical sites.

The group said Syrian personnel had visited one of two remaining sites that they could not visit for security reasons and filmed it with "sealed cameras."

OPCW and U.N. inspectors have until mid-2014 to destroy Syria's entire chemical arsenal and production facilities under the terms of a U.S.-Russian deal to head off military strikes on Assad's regime.

"The verification was conducted with the support of sealed cameras used by Syrian personnel as per the inspection team's guidance," the Hague-based OPCW said in a statement.

"The exact geographical location and the time of capture of the footage/images were fully authenticated," it said, adding that the site was near the northwestern city of Aleppo.

"As per the declaration by Syria, the site was confirmed as dismantled and long abandoned, with the building showing extensive battle damage," the OPCW said.

Syria has declared approximately 1,290 tonnes of chemical weapons and agents as well as 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions, meaning shells, rockets or mortars.

It has already destroyed 99 warheads and is expected to destroy 55 more, with Damascus facing a November 15 deadline to finalize the plan for the destruction of the chemical arsenal.

Source: Agence France Presse

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