Syrian troops retake Christian town from jihadis
DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian government forces retook a Christian town north of Damascus on Monday after a week of fierce clashes with al-Qaida-linked fighters who had recently captured key parts of it, state media said.
The fighting came as the U.N.-Arab League envoy arrived in Syria on his first trip to the country in almost a year.
Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to prepare a peace conference on Syria supposed to take place in Geneva next month but the gathering has been increasingly in doubt as Syria's warring factions refuse to face each other at the negotiating table.
The United States and Russia have been trying for months to convene the conference to negotiate a political solution to Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and forced some 2 million to flee the country since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
After his last trip to Syria in December 2012, Brahimi had angered Syrian authorities when he said that 40 years of President Bashar Assad family rule in Syria was "too long." Syrian officials then accused him of being biased.
This time, Brahimi visited several countries in the region, including Iran, where he said Saturday that the participation of Iran — a key backer of Assad — at a Syria peace conference was "necessary." On Monday, Brahimi travelled from Tehran by private jet to Beirut, then continued by road to Damascus.
In the Lebanese capital, he would not speak to reporters. "I will speak when I return," he said.
Arab League's chief Nabil Elaraby recently said the Geneva conference would be held on Nov. 23. Brahimi, however, has stressed that no date has been set but that the United Nations hopes to organize the gathering in late November.
The fighting in Syria, meanwhile, has continued unabated. The state-run SANA news agency said the army "restored security and stability" to the town of Sadad, 120 kilometers (75 mile) north of Damascus, early on Monday.
It said "a large number of terrorists" were killed and their weapons seized, adding that the army dismantled scores of roadside bombs planted by gunmen around the Christian town.
Sadad had been in opposition hands since last week, when al-Qaida-linked groups captured a checkpoint that gave them control of the western part of the town.
The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christian minority, which fears the radicals and tends to favor Assad. Other al-Qaida-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
SANA said the army was still pursuing opposition fighters who fled Sadad for surrounding farms It also reported that the rebels had vandalized the town's Saint Theodor Church and much of its infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that jihadis in Syria torched an Armenian church in the northern town of Tel Abyad along the border with Turkey late on Sunday.
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