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Apr 23, 6:58 AM EDT

Syrian troops capture central town after heavy clashes


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces have captured a central town and adjacent villages, boosting security in nearby areas loyal to President Bashar Assad, and marched deeper into a rebel-held neighborhood of Damascus, Syrian state media and an opposition monitoring group said Sunday.

The latest advances came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sent a cable to the Syrian leader on the occasion of Syria's April 17 Independence Day.

"We count on your country's involvement and effective contribution to help build a stronger United Nations organization and move our efforts forward to ensure peace, development and human rights for all people," the letter said, according to a copy released by Assad's office.

Assad's government still holds the country's seat at the United Nations, unlike the 22-member Arab League, which suspended Syria's membership in 2012.

The conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced half the country's population.

The SANA state news agency quoted an unnamed military official as saying Sunday that troops and pro-government fighters captured the central town of Halfaya and nearby villages after days of intense clashes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says insurgents, including members of the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front, withdrew from Halfaya and nearby villages as a result of the intensity of the ground attack and scores of airstrikes.

Saturday's capture of Halfaya and nearby areas came after government forces captured the nearby town of Taybet al-Imam on April 17. The latest government offensive will help to secure nearby villages and towns inhabited by Christians and members of Assad's minority Alawite sect.

Assad's forces lost Halfaya in the summer of 2016.

The Syrian Central Military Media said government forces pushed deeper into the rebel-held neighborhood of Qaboun in the capital, capturing a mosque on a main road. The Observatory reported intense clashes in the area.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

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