Syrian troops make inroads south of Damascus

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In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers take their positions on a street in Sabina suburb, south of Damascus, Syria, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. Syrian troops seized control of the suburb of Sabina from rebels on Thursday. State-run news agency SANA said the area had been used as a base to smuggle weapons and ammunition to rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus. Activists said Syrian troops launched a major offensive Friday to recapture the international airport of the northern city of Aleppo. (AP Photo/SANA)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops captured most of a contested suburb south of Damascus on Wednesday as the government forges ahead with a punishing military offensive that already has taken four other nearby opposition strongholds, state media said.

For more than a year, much of the belt of neighborhoods and towns just south of Damascus has been a rebel bastion and a key arms conduit for the opposition. But government forces — bolstered by fighters from Lebanon's Shiite militant Hezbollah group and Shiite militants from Iraq — have made significant headway in recent weeks in the area, in a push by President Bashar Assad to shore up his hold on the capital and its doorstep.

The town of Hejeira on Wednesday became the latest rebel-held suburb to fall into government hands. The SANA state news agency said the army seized control of the town, but was still battling rebels on the outskirts.

The opposition's hold on Hejeira became untenable after the military captured the adjacent town of Sabina in recent days.

Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which had a reporter embedded with Syrian government forces in the offensive, broadcast what it said were live images from the streets of Hejeira, showing shattered store fronts, sandbags piled at street corners and the gutted concrete hulks of apartment blocs.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said government forces are in control of most of Hejeira, but that there are still pockets of resistance.

The government also has made inroads in recent weeks outside the northern city of Aleppo, wresting back a military base near the city's international airport as well as two towns along the highway southeast of the air field.

Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said government helicopters on Wednesday were dropping barrel bombs on rebel positions inside Tel Hasel, which is the sole town along the highway still in opposition hands.

Aleppo has been a major battlefield in Syria's 2 1/2-year-old conflict since last summer when rebels launched an offensive on the city. More than a year later, Aleppo is now carved up into rebel- and government-held areas, and fighting has left much of the city in ruins.

While the battle for the city has been stalemated for months, the rebels are clearly concerned about the government's latest push. A group of six prominent rebel brigades has called for all fighters in the city to come together to repel the military offensive, activists say.

The armed opposition in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside has been crippled by recent infighting, which has undermined the rebels in their efforts to oust Assad.