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Syrian army captures key town

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ALBERT AJI and NILS MYKLEBOST | December 9, 2013 02:55 PM EST | AP

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops seized a key opposition-held town Monday along a major north-south highway critical for transporting the government's chemical weapons stocks to a port where they could be shipped out for destruction by the international community.

The government has been cooperating with chemical weapons inspectors, and the capture of the town of Nabek may make the transfer of the stocks go more smoothly.

But the head of the global chemical arms watchdog warned that worsening security may make it difficult to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to remove the toxic chemicals from the country.

The Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive in the mountainous Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border and has seized a string of towns and villages in the area near the highway that connects Damascus with the city of Homs to the north.

That road serves as a crucial link between the capital and northern Syria as well as government strongholds in the northwest along the Mediterranean. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said last week it would consider using the road to transport the chemical weapons to the port of Latakia from where the arms would be shipped for destruction abroad or at sea.

Troops reopened the highway Sunday, nearly 20 days after it was closed because of the fighting. On Monday, state media said President Bashar Assad's forces took full control of Nabek, which lies on the edge of the road. Lebanese fighters from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group have aided the troops.

Syrian TV showed a huge Syrian flag unfurled over a building in Nabek's main square and dozens of people waving Syrian flags. The broadcast showed a young Syrian woman saying to the TV reporter: "May God protect our Syrian soldiers. I feel safe now."

Another woman told the reporter that residents suffered from lack of food and water since the fighting began three weeks ago. "We lived very difficult 20 days," she said.

Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that government forces are now in control of Nabek except for a pocket of resistance in a small area east of the town. He added that while the highway was now under full control of the government, it can still be targeted by opposition fighters.

In Norway, the head of the organization leading the mission to destroy Syria's chemical weapons said there may be delays in transporting the chemicals out of the war-torn country. Ahmet Uzumc, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the Dec. 31 deadline to get the most toxic chemicals out of Syria "will be quite difficult to meet."

He also called the goal to get less toxic chemicals out of Syria by Feb. 5 "quite an ambitious timeline" and added "there might be a few days' delay." Nevertheless, Uzumc said he's hopeful all the Syrian chemicals will be destroyed by mid-2014 as planned.

He was in the Norwegian capital of Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the OPCW on Tuesday.

In Moscow, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said his government was discussing the issue of transportation with the Americans and the OPCW. He did not give details.

On Monday, the opposition marked 1,000 days since Syria's uprising against Assad's rule began in March 2011. More than 120,000 have been killed, according to the Observatory, and millions of Syrians have been uprooted from their homes.

"Today marks a tragic milestone, which honors our country's democratic resistance and serves to remind us of the many lives lost in Syria in pursuit of freedom," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.N. representative for the Syrian National Coalition, which is the political arm of the Free Syrian Army rebel group.

In a statement, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the conflict's toll as "the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of this century" and reiterated that Assad cannot be part of Syria's future.

In Damascus, the Syrian Foreign Ministry complained about what it described as the continued "flagrant intervention" by Saudi Arabia in Syria's internal affairs, saying government forces have so far killed more than 300 Saudis.

Saudi Arabia is one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition and a harsh critic of Assad.

In two letters sent to the presidents of the U.N. Security Council and the United Nations, the ministry said the Saudi government is still "submitting aid to armed groups and practicing its sabotaging role" by recruiting extremists affiliated with al-Qaida.

Meanwhile, the Observatory reported Monday that members of the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant shot and killed diesel vendor Ibrahim Qassoum, a father of three, in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib two days after detaining him and accusing him of blasphemy. It said the jihadis asked Qassoum why the diesel he sold was not pure, and that he answered: "How would I know? Am I the God of diesel?"

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Myklebost reported from Oslo, Norway. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.