|Syrian troops push into strategic town in south|
|Written by BASSEM MROUE|
BEIRUT (AP) 5/8/2013
Syrian troops pushed Wednesday into a strategic town along the highway leading to the Jordanian border as a massive Internet outage engulfed most of the country for a second day.
The regime's advance into Khirbet Ghazaleh, a town south of Damascus along a key artery to the border, came after weeks of fighting and government attempts to secure the highway.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the push was part of a wider offensive against rebels in which President Bashar Assad's troops have regained some areas around Damascus, in the central province of Homs near the Lebanese border and in the region of Aleppo to the north.
It was not immediately clear if the government had pulled the plug on Internet, triggering a blackout similar to a two-day outage that Syria experienced late last fall. Cellphone and phone services also were out in much of the country Wednesday.
Syrian authorities have in the past cut phone and Internet service in selected areas to disrupt rebel communications when regime forces were conducting major operations but widespread outages, however, have been rare.
The rebels and the government blamed one another for the blackout last year, which coincided with a major military operation in areas around the capital and near the Damascus International Airport.
Meanwhile, the Observatory and another activist group, the Aleppo Media Center, said opposition fighters shot down a fighter jet that was bombing rebel positions in the battle for the Mannagh airbase near the border with Turkey.
Rebels stormed the besieged air base on Sunday and the fighting is now taking place inside the sprawling facility, the activists said. Also Sunday, the rebels downed a military helicopter in the eastern Deir el-Zour region, killing eight government troops who were on board.
Assad's forces on Wednesday attacked a military post they had lost to the rebels earlier in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, the two activist groups said.
As the violence continued on the ground, the United States and Russia, a key ally of Assad's government, said they'll convene a new international conference later this month to build on a transition plan they set out last year in Geneva.
Speaking in Moscow after his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the plan should be a roadmap for peace and not just a "piece of paper."
The goal is still to bring the Assad regime and representatives from the opposition together for talks on setting up an interim government, Kerry said Tuesday. The Geneva plan, which never gained traction, allowed each side to veto candidates it found unacceptable.
The Geneva proposal also calls for an open-ended cease-fire and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held and a new constitution drafted.
Meanwhile, in southern Syria, rebels were holding four U.N. peacekeepers who were abducted Tuesday near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The abduction was the second such incident in the area in two months. It exposed the vulnerability of the U.N. peacekeeping mission during the Syrian civil war and sent a worrisome signal to Syria's neighbors — including Israel — about the ensuing lawlessness along their shared frontiers.
Syria's 2-year crisis that has so far claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.