Syrian army routs rebels from Assad home province

Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad drove rebels out of his Latakia home province Monday as UN inspectors began probing the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syria war.

As the UN team left their Damascus hotel for an undisclosed destination, Jordan said it was receiving US technical assistance to prepare for any possible chemical warfare in neighbouring Syria.

State news agency SANA said the Syrian army recaptured a swathe of territory in northern Latakia, including a remote mountainous region where rebels launched operations earlier this month.

"The army retook control of the Nabi Ashia mountain range and adjoining areas in the north of Latakia province," SANA quoted a military source as saying.

Rebels positioned in remote enclaves in Latakia's mountains launched the "battle for the liberation of the Syrian coast" about two weeks ago.

Latakia is the ancestral land of the Assad clan and the hinterland of his minority Alawite community -- an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Over the past two weeks rebels had seized several Alawite villages near Qardaha, home town of Assad's late father and long-time president Hafez al-Assad who is also buried there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the army retook nine villages and military checkpoints that had been set up by the rebels in the area.

"The army has made progress," in Latakia, said the Britain-based watchdog which relies on a wide network of medics and activists on the ground.

But a Syrian security force told AFP the army still had to recapture the Salma region, a strategic area along the border with Turkey that has been in rebel hands since the end of last year.

The Observatory said rebel fighters on Sunday shot down a military plane over Salma. "The pilot bailed out but was later captured, most likely by insurgents," it added.

The frontlines in Syria's deadly war have stabilised in recent months, with Assad's troops controlling the centre and the west, while rebels deployed in swathes of the north and east.

Southern Syria remains disputed, while parts of the north have witnessed the opening of a new front as Kurdish fighters seek to establish an autonomous area.

Fighting in the north triggered a new exodus of refugees with at least 15,000 Syrians pouring into Iraq in recent days, the UN says.

A team of more than 10 inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin their hard-won mission which UN officials have said will last two weeks.

They were not in their hotel on Monday, an AFP journalist at the scene said. Both UN spokesman in Syria, Khaled al-Masri, and security officials refused to elaborate on where they had gone.

The inspectors are expected to travel to Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo, where regime and rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons on March 19.

They are also expected to investigate Ataybeh near Damascus, where an attack was reported in March, and Homs, where chemical weapons are suspected to have been used on December 23.

The mission had been repeatedly delayed over differences with Assad's regime concerning the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms.

Syria last year admitted having chemical weapons but said it will never turn them against its own people.

The UN mission was cautiously welcomed by the opposition National Coalition, which stressed that inspectors "must go to all areas where there have been (chemical) attacks".

"Although the Coalition trusts the mission's impartiality, it will be difficult for it to reach real results, because the regime is known for manipulating evidence," a statement said.

Meanwhile across the border in Jordan, Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur said the United States was helping Amman to prepare for any chemical warfare.

"We are ready for the possibilities of chemical wars. UN investigators are in Syria now, so apparently there are chemical weapons," Nsur told reporters.

"US teams are helping Jordan with this. They provide training and other things should something happens, God forbids," he said giving details on the exact nature of the US assistance.

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