September 25, 2014 / 8:02 AM / 5 years ago

Syrian army extends grip in town northeast of Damascus

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces overran rebels in a town northeast of Damascus on Thursday, strengthening President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on territory around the capital.

The town - Adra al-Omalia - is about 30 km (19 miles) from central Damascus but far from parts of Syria where the United States has launched air strikes against Islamic State militants.

Syrian state TV said the armed forces had “imposed their control over the city of Adra al-Omalia and eliminated a number of terrorists.” Troops were combing the area and clearing out explosives planted by militants, it added.

Assad’s forces, backed by the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, have been gradually extending control over a corridor of territory from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast this year, seizing towns and villages along the main north-south highway and in the mountainous Qalamoun area along the Lebanese border.

The advances in Adra al-Omalia show that the government is continuing to press that campaign as U.S.-led forces bombard Islamic State positions elsewhere in the country.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the government had taken control of Adra al-Omalia after clashes with rebels including some from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, whose positions have also been hit by U.S. air strikes.

The Observatory, which monitors the conflict through a network of sources, earlier said at least 29 people - 18 of them rebel fighters - died during fighting on Wednesday between insurgents and government forces in the outskirts of Damascus.

State TV broadcast what is said was live footage from the town showing soldiers standing in the area near buildings that had collapsed or were smashed up.

Many Syrian activists and rebels have criticized the United States for focusing on striking Islamic State and other militant groups while doing little to bring down Assad.

Syria’s conflict started as a peaceful protest movement but, after a government crackdown, turned into a war that has killed more than 190,000 people over more than three years. Fighting still regularly kills nearly 200 people a day.

On Wednesday, a Syrian government minister gave guarded support for the U.S.-led air strikes, saying they were going in the “right direction”.

Reporting by Sylvia Westall and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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