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Syrian troops recapture key territory

Gains reported a day after rebels seized air base

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian troops have captured most of a strategic Damascus suburb used by rebels as a base to threaten key regime facilities in the capital, a government official said Saturday.

The announcement that regime forces had taken Daraya was made a day after antigovernment activists said rebels and Islamic militants seeking to topple President Bashar Assad took full control of Taftanaz air base in the northwest. That dealt a significant blow to Assad’s military, with helicopters, tanks, and multiple rocket launchers seized.

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The back-to-back declarations highlight the see-saw nature of the conflict in Syria, where one side’s victories in one area are often followed by reverses in another.

The army was continuing to battle small groups of rebels and expects to have full control of Daraya “within few days,’’ the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Syrian troops have been battling for weeks to regain Daraya from the hands of antigovernment fighters. The suburb, just south of Damascus, is on the edge of the strategic military air base of Mazzeh in a western neighborhood of the capital.

It borders the Kfar Sousseh neighborhood that is home to the government headquarters, the General Security intelligence agency head office, and the Interior Ministry, which was the target of a recent suicide attack that wounded the interior minister.

The suburb is also less than 6 miles from the People’s Palace — one of three palaces in the capital used by Assad.

Syria’s pro-government media had reported that thousands of rebel fighters from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group have holed up in Daraya in preparation to storm Damascus.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States and which Washington contends is affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been among the most effective fighting forces on the rebel side in the battle to oust Assad. Syrian official statements regularly play up the role of Islamist extremists within the rebel movement.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daraya and other suburbs of the capital were being shelled on Saturday.

The group also said Syrian warplanes were attacking eastern suburbs of Damascus including Mleiha, as well as the rebel-held town of Rastan near the central city of Homs.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in Syria’s conflict, which has turned into an outright civil war driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and across the borders into neighboring countries.

Shortly after they captured the Taftanaz field in Idlib province, rebels in the neighboring province of Aleppo intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport of the city of Aleppo, which includes a military base. Rebels have been trying to capture the two sites since last week, along with a third airfield known as Kweires.

State-run Syrian TV reported Saturday that the army repelled rebels who attacked Kishek airport in Aleppo and inflicted casualties among the attackers. It gave no further details.

The Observatory reported Saturday that warplanes carried out air raids around the international airport of Aleppo in an attempt to push back the rebels attacking it.

The violence came a day after a meeting on Syria’s conflict in Geneva in which international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said that he doesn’t expect a political solution to emerge anytime soon. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns took part in the talks along with Brahimi, and the UN envoy said he felt that Russia was as determined as Washington to end the violence.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday it is still strongly against any foreign interference in the war-torn country’s affairs.

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