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Syrian troops seize rebel-held town in Latakia

Syrian state television reports that the northwestern town of Rabia has been taken by government troops. It was the last major rebel-held town in the coastal Latakia province.

In its broadcast, state television quoted a military source as saying the "armed forces, in coordination with the popular defense (militia), seized control of the town of Rabia."

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the advance was backed by Russian air strikes and was directed partly by Russian officers.

"In the past 48 hours, Syrian government forces surrounded the town from three sides - the south, west, and north - by capturing 20 villages," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Key supply route

The seizure of Rabia follows the recapture of Salma, another town in Latakia earlier this month. The two towns were described by SOHR as the two most important bases for rebel fighters in the northern Latakia countryside.

The monitoring group predicted that the town's capture would allow pro-government forces to continue right up to the Turkish border, where they can shut off a vital rebel supply route.

"By controlling this road, the Syrian army can block rebel movements towards the south, towards Latakia, and the rebels will have a hard time getting close and firing missiles at the (coastal) airport," Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche told AFP.

Syrien troop motorbike

Syria troops have relied on motorbikes in their fightback

Regime gaining ground

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

Syrian state news agency SANA said government forces were "combing the area to dismantle any explosive devices or mines planted by the terrorists, many of whom were killed."

With the help of Russian air raids,

the Syrian regime has gained ground in recent months in Latakia, Aleppo and Deraa provinces, but rebels have managed to advance in other regions including Hama province.

Moscow has been sharply criticized by rights groups for air strikes that are said to have hit civilian areas. But the Kremlin has maintained it is targeting "Islamic State" (IS) fighters.

The capture came ahead of

scheduled peace talks in Geneva between the government and opposition groups

on Monday. But disagreements over who will represent Syrian rebel groups have cast doubt over whether they will take place.

mm/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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