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Syrian government forces seize hotly contested Damascus suburb

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BEIRUT - Syrian government troops captured a fiercely contested suburb of the capital Thursday after five months of heavy fighting, flushing rebels from their last hideouts and quickly moving to crush pockets of resistance in the surrounding countryside, activists and state media said.

The fall of Mleiha, located some 10 kilometres (6 miles) southeast of downtown Damascus, marks the latest setback for rebels around the capital. Over the past year, the opposition has watched as one stronghold after another has either slipped into government hands or been forced to strike lopsided truces.

The military's campaign around Damascus has succeeded in pushing the rebels farther from the heart of the city, while also strengthening President Bashar Assad's once shaky hold on the capital. Those gains, coupled with significant victories elsewhere in Syria in recent months, have swung the momentum in Syria's 3 1/2-year-old conflict firmly in the government's favour.

In the country's north and east, however, government forces have fallen back in the face of an advance by the extremist Islamic State group, which has seized several military bases and outposts and killed hundreds of soldiers and pro-government fighters. The group, which has declared a self-styled caliphate in areas straddling the Iraq-Syria border, continued to advance in the northern Aleppo province Thursday after seizing a string of towns and villages a day earlier, activists said.

Mainstream rebels in the divided city of Aleppo, already squeezed by President Bashar Assad's forces, now fear the advancing militants. The city, once Syria's commercial capital, is carved up between rebel and government-held districts and has seen heavy fighting since rebels seized parts of it in 2012.

Syria's Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, issued an appeal for immediate U.S. military assistance to stop what it said was a two-front attack by Islamic State fighters and Assad's forces.

"The FSA (Free Syrian Army) needs an immediate surge of military aid in Aleppo, or the city and its residents will be obliterated," said Oubai Shahbandar, a Washington-based senior strategist for the group.

The coalition also acknowledged defeat in Mleiha Thursday, saying the rebels had withdrawn in the face of attacks by government forces and allied Shiite militiamen.

Assad's forces have waged a ferocious offensive since April to try to dislodge rebels from Mleiha, pounding the besieged town daily with airstrikes and artillery. Both sides placed a premium on controlling Mleiha because of its strategic location near the highway to the Damascus airport and its proximity to the opposition stronghold of eastern Ghouta.

Government troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group, finally seized the town Thursday, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists inside Syria.

"Mleiha is under government control, but there is still fighting in the areas surrounding the town," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman.

Syrian TV said army units have restored peace and security to Mleiha after destroying the last of the terrorist groups there. The government calls all those fighting to topple Assad terrorists.

Syrian state TV and Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar TV stations broadcast live from the northern part of Mleiha Thursday. The footage showed bombed out buildings and dusty, rubble-strewn streets. Electricity cables dangled from apartment blocks.

"The Syrian army carried out early Thursday a critical military operation on the edges of the town through which it was able to take by surprise and destroy large numbers of Nusra Front terrorists," Syrian TV said, referring to the al-Qaida-affiliated rebel group.

It showed soldiers waving their rifles in the air and shouting pro-Syria slogans in celebration. The crackle of gunfire could be heard, which the correspondent said was fighting on the edge of the town.

___

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

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