Syrian government forces retook a Christian town north of Damascus from al-Qaeda-linked rebels who seized control of part of it a week ago, touching off fierce clashes, state media and opposition activists said.
The recapture of Sadad came as the U.N.-Arab League envoy arrived in Syria on his first trip to the country in almost a year.
Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to prepare a peace conference on Syria supposed to take place in Geneva next month. But it’s unclear if the gathering will take place as planned, since Syria’s warring factions refuse to face each other at the negotiating table.
The United States and Russia have been trying for months to convene the conference to negotiate a political solution to Syria’s civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed and some 2 million have fled the country since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
After his last trip to Syria in December 2012, Brahimi had angered Syrian authorities when he said that 40 years of rule by the family of President Bashar Assad was “too long.” Syrian officials then accused him of being biased.
This time, Brahimi visited several countries in the region, including Iran. He said Saturday that the participation of Tehran - a key backer of Assad - at a Syria peace conference was “necessary.” On Monday, Brahimi travelled from Tehran by private jet to Beirut, then continued by road to Damascus.
In the Lebanese capital, he would not speak to reporters. “I will speak when I return,” he said.
Brahimi was received in Damascus by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. During his visit, expected to last several days, Brahimi will meet Syrian officials as well as members of local opposition groups. It is not clear if he will meet Assad.
Assad told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV last week that Brahimi “should abide by his mission and not go out of this framework.” Assad added that Brahimi “is a mediator and the mediator should be neutral and stand in the middle.”
Assad added that Brahimi, during one of his visits to Syria, “tried to convince me about the necessity of not running in the coming presidential elections in 2014. This was at the end of 2012. My answer was clear, that this is an internal Syrian affair and is not negotiable with any person who is not Syrian.”
Arab League’s chief Nabil Elaraby recently said the Geneva conference would be held on Nov. 23. Brahimi, however, has stressed that no date has been set but that the United Nations hopes to organize the gathering in late November.
A U.N. diplomat, speaking only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said Monday Syrian deputy Prime Minister, Qadri Jamil, met with U.S. officials in Geneva over the weekend to discuss the possibility of holding a second Geneva peace conference, but no breakthroughs were reported to have come out of the talks.
The fighting in Syria, meanwhile, has continued unabated. The state-run SANA news agency said the army “restored security and stability” to the town of Sadad, 120 kilometers (75 mile) north of Damascus, early on Monday.
It said “a large number of terrorists” were killed and their weapons seized, adding that the army dismantled scores of roadside bombs planted by gunmen around the Christian town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government had retaken the town but that rebels had successfully withdrawn.
Much of Sadad had been in opposition hands since last week, when al-Qaeda-linked groups captured a checkpoint that gave them control of the western part of the town.
The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria’s Christian minority, which fears the radicals and tends to favor Assad. Other al-Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
SANA said the army was still pursuing opposition fighters who fled Sadad for surrounding farms. It also reported that the rebels had vandalized the town’s Saint Theodore Church and much of Sadad’s infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Observatory said, hard-liners torched an Armenian church in the northern town of Tel Abyad along the border with Turkey late on Sunday.