President Bashar al-Assad’s troops drove rebel fighters out of his Latakia home province on Monday as UN inspectors began probing the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
As the UN team left their Damascus hotel for an undisclosed destination, Jordan said it was receiving US technical assistance to prepare for any possible chemical warfare in neighbouring Syria.
On the diplomatic front, top Russian and US officials are to meet in The Hague next week to discuss preparations for a long-delayed international peace conference on the 29-month-old conflict, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said.
Syrian state news agency SANA, meanwhile, said the army recaptured territory in northern Latakia, a province on the Mediterranean coast, including a remote mountainous region where rebels launched operations this month.
“The army retook control of the Nabi Ashia mountain range and adjoining areas in the north of Latakia province,” SANA quoted a military source as saying.
Rebels in remote enclaves in Latakia’s mountains launched an offensive in the region about two weeks ago.
Latakia is the hinterland of Assad’s minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Over the past two weeks, rebel forces — mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority — had seized several Alawite villages near Qardaha, hometown of Assad’s late father and long-time president Hafez al-Assad who is also buried there.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the army retook nine villages and military checkpoints set up by rebels in the area.
“The army has made progress” in Latakia, said the Britain-based group which relies on a network of medics and activists on the ground.
But a Syrian security source told AFP the army had yet to recapture the Salma region, a strategic area bordering Turkey that has been in rebel hands since late last year.
The frontlines in Syria’s war have stabilised in recent months, with Assad controlling the centre and the west, while rebels are deployed in swathes of the north and east.
Southern Syria remains disputed, while parts of the north have witnessed the opening of a new front as Kurdish fighters seek to establish an autonomous area, clashing with jihadist fighters.
Fighting in the north triggered a new exodus of refugees with at least 30,000 Syrians pouring into Iraq in recent days, the UN says.
Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR told AFP 5,000 entered Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region on Monday alone, spurring the UNHCR to mobilise vast amounts of aid.
“They are frightened, they are worried, they are nervous,” he said.
A team of more than 10 inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin their hard-won mission which UN officials have said will last two weeks.
They were not in their hotel on Monday, an AFP journalist at the scene said. The UN spokesman in Syria, Khaled al-Masri, and security officials refused to elaborate on where they had gone.
The inspectors are expected to travel to Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo, where the regime and rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons on March 19.
They are also expected to investigate Ataybeh near Damascus, where an attack was reported in March, and Homs, where chemical weapons are suspected to have been used on December 23.
The mission had been repeatedly delayed over differences with Assad’s regime concerning the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms.
Syria last year admitted having chemical weapons but said it would never turn them against its own people.
The UN mission was cautiously welcomed by the opposition National Coalition, which stressed that inspectors “must go to all areas where there have been (chemical) attacks”.
“Although the Coalition trusts the mission’s impartiality, it will be difficult for it to reach real results, because the regime is known for manipulating evidence,” a statement said.
Across the border in Jordan, Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur said the United States was helping Amman to prepare for any chemical warfare.
“We are ready for the possibilities of chemical wars. UN investigators are in Syria now, so apparently there are chemical weapons,” Nsur told reporters.
“US teams are helping Jordan with this. They provide training and other things should something happens, God forbids,” he said giving details on the exact nature of the US assistance.