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svgadminsvgJanuary 25, 2016svgNews

Syria regime advances in Latakia

Pro-government forces overran the last major rebel-held town in Syria’s coastal Latakia province Sunday, as the United Nations prepares to host talks on ending the country’s nearly five-year war.

State television said the army, working with pro-regime militia, took control of Rabia after heavy fighting with rebels.

It was the second strategic victory for pro-regime forces in Latakia in less than two weeks, after they seized the town of Salma on January 12.

“In the coming weeks, we will be able to announce that all of Latakia — city and province — is free from armed groups,” an army commander in Latakia told AFP.

The army would now use Rabia as a launching point for ground operations against rebel-held towns to the east in adjacent Idlib province, he said.

Rabia had been held by the opposition since 2012 and was controlled by rebel groups including some made up of Syrian Turkmen, as well as Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

State news agency SANA said government forces were “combing the area to dismantle any explosive devices or mines planted by the terrorists”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Rabia fell on Sunday after regime forces surrounded the town and captured 20 villages in the area.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said senior Russian military officials oversaw the battle and that Russian air strikes “played an essential role” in the fight.

With Rabia’s capture, government forces are closing in on rebel supply routes through the Turkish border to the north, he added.

Armed opposition factions have used northern parts of Latakia province to carry out rocket and bomb attacks on the provincial capital along the coast.

The latest military advance came as world powers intensify efforts to reach a political solution to Syria’s war.

Representatives of the government and opposition were set to meet in Geneva on Monday as part of a UN-endorsed 18-month peace plan, but sharp disagreements over the makeup of the opposition delegation, namely the inclusion of armed groups among negotiators, have slowed momentum and officials now say they expect a delay of a few days.

A Riyadh-based alliance of opposition groups, including the National Coalition, has already announced three delegates it will send to Geneva.

But it came under fire for naming Mohamed Alloush from the powerful rebel group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) as chief negotiator.

The Syrian government considers Jaish al-Islam and all other armed opponents to be “terrorist groups” with which it will not negotiate.

AFP contributed to this report.

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