Syrian troops launch assault on northern village

BARBARA SURK
This Saturday, July 27, 2013 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque in the heavily disputed northern neighborhood of Khaldiyeh, in Homs, Syria. Syrian government forces captured a historic mosque in the central city of Homs on Saturday, expelling rebel forces who had been in control of the 13th century landmark for more than a year and dealing a symbolic blow to opposition forces. (AP Photo/SANA)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government troops launched an assault Wednesday to regain control of a northern village that was the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack earlier this year, activists said.

The push on Khan al-Assal, a village on the southwestern outskirts of the embattled city of Aleppo, comes more than a week after it was captured by the rebels.

The capture was a rare battlefield success for the rebels as opposition forces recently suffered two major setbacks during a wide-ranging government offensive in central Syria. In June, President Bashar Assad's army recaptured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border and earlier this week, government troops took control of a district in the city of Homs that has been the opposition stronghold since the beginning of the conflict.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 government soldiers were killed after Khan al-Assal fell to the rebels. The Observatory said the army attacked rebel positions Wednesday outside the village after bringing in reinforcements.

Khan al-Assal was the scene of a purported chemical attack on March 19 that killed at least 30 people. Assad's regime and the rebels have blamed each other for that attack.

Last week, the government indicated it agreed with a U.N. team on a possible investigation into chemical attacks. It was the first time U.N. weapons experts had visited Damascus since allegations emerged about chemical agents being used.

Khan al-Assal was under government control in March but was captured by the rebels on July 22. Even if the U.N. team is granted access to the village, it may be difficult to find evidence from the March attack because so much time has passed.

Earlier this month, the U.N. said it has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis prayed Wednesday for a priest missing in Syria during a Mass with fellow Jesuits in Rome's Church of Jesus. Activists say Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, went missing two days ago while on a trip to the rebel-held northeastern city of Raqqa. Dall'Oglio is an Assad opponent who was expelled last year from Syria, where he had lived for 30 years.

He reportedly went in to Raqqa to meet with al-Qaida-linked militants there.

During a prayer, the pope remembered two other Jesuits who had died, and then added: "I am thinking of Father Paolo."

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that the Holy See is closely monitoring for any information about the whereabouts of Dall'Oglio, adding that the priest was in Syria with good intentions.

"If Father Dall'Oglio is working on initiatives for the good, let's hope he completes them. We are close to him spiritually," Lombardi told journalists at the Vatican. He described Dall'Oglio as "a courageous person, informed of the risks" inside Syria and someone who "knows those places well."

Also Thursday, an international media watch dog condemned the abduction of three employees of Orient TV, a Syrian opposition-linked satellite channel, calling on their captors to immediately release them.

Reporter Obeida Batal, soundman Hosam Nizam al-Dine and technician Aboud al-Atik were kidnapped July 25 after an attack on the Orient TV office in Tel Rifaat, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Aleppo, the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Their abduction came a day after a Polish journalist, Marcin Suder, was taken hostage in Saraqeb, in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Also, Iran announced it will provide Damascus with a $3.6 billion credit line for buying oil, according to a report late Tuesday by state news service SANA. Iran is a close ally of Assad.

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Associated Press writer Coleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.