Syria troops dislodge rebels threatening Hama air base

Regime forces expected to continue their advance in the western part of province

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Syrian troops have regained control of villages near a military air base in the central province of Hama, pushing back rebel fighters in the area, a monitoring group said Tuesday as the new United Nations special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura began his first visit to Damascus, state news agency SANA said.

Also read: Bombing kills head of Syrian rebel group

Staffan de Mistura arrived in Damascus in the afternoon after crossing by land from neighboring Lebanon. He is accompanied by his deputy Ramzy Ezzedine Ramzy. Both assumed their functions at the beginning of the month.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops and pro-regime militiamen had made the advances in the past few days after months of fighting with rebel groups in the area.

Regime forces pushed back rebels “who were threatening the strategic Hama military airport, from which the regime launches air raids on several areas,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

The advances came after the launch of an operation reportedly led by Suhail al-Hassan, the Syrian officer notorious for a brutal barrel-bombing campaign in Aleppo as well as operations in the northern province that have seen regime forces regain large stretches of territory.

Abdel-Rahman said government troops were expected to continue their advance in the western part of Hama province by moving toward Halfaya, a stronghold of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.

The regime has already begun bombing raids on the area, including dropping two explosive-packed barrel bombs Tuesday, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, in the southern Quneitra province, where rebel forces seized the Syrian side of a crossing with Israeli-occupied territory last week, fighting continued between rebels and regime forces.

The Observatory said rebels had seized territory between Quneitra and Deraa province, and that the fighting in the area had prompted residents of surrounding villages to flee.

And around the capital Damascus, state news agency SANA reported at least five people killed Tuesday in mortar fire on the suburbs of Jaramana and neighboring Kashkul.

The agency blamed “terrorists” for the fire, the term used by the government for all those seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Regime forces were also continuing operations in the areas of Dakhaniyeh, on the highway leading south from Damascus to Deraa, a security source said.

“The area has been surrounded and a number of armed men present have been eliminated in the course of the operation,” the source said.

Operations were also ongoing in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, which the regime is trying to wrest from rebel control.

Regime planes have carried out a fierce aerial campaign on the area, which they consider a key gateway to the neighboring opposition stronghold of Eastern Ghouta.

“The decision has been taken to continue operations until the return of security and stability to Jobar,” the security source said.

“This is a step toward cleaning up in Eastern Ghouta.”

In Damascus, de Mistura arrived in the afternoon after crossing by land from neighboring Lebanon in a bid to try end the deadly three-year conflict.

The envoy is accompanied by his deputy Ramzy Ezzedine Ramzy. Both assumed their functions at the beginning of the month.

De Mistura was received by Syria’s deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. It was not immediately clear whether he would meet President Bashar Assad during his visit.

De Mistura is now the third special envoy tasked with helping to end the yearslong fighting in Syria that the U.N. says has killed more than 190,000 people and displaced some 9 million, a third of the country’s pre-war population. The Swedish-Italian diplomat and his Egyptian deputy were named to the post in July.

De Mistura replaced Lakhdar Brahimi, who resigned on May 31 after nearly two years of failed efforts to end the worsening civil war. Unlike Brahimi, de Mistura is not a joint envoy of the U.N. and the Arab League, which has been deeply divided over the war in Syria. Ramzy was recommended by the Arab League.

[With AFP and AP]

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