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Activists: Syria troops advance under Russian air cover

Albert Aji
Associated Press

Damascus, Syria – — Russian jets intensified their airstrikes Monday in central Syria as government forces battle insurgents in a strategic area near a rebel-held province and a government stronghold.

The government push is the latest in a bid to regain the Sahl al-Ghab plain, which is adjacent to Latakia province, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad and the Alawite religious minority to which he belongs.

After a heavy barrage of Russian airstrikes, the fighting was focused on the village of Kfar Nabudeh, which officials said had been seized by government troops. Activists said Syrian rebels repelled the attack.

Capturing Kfar Nabudeh would cut off a major highway, giving the pro-government forces access to the northwestern province of Idlib. A rebel coalition that includes the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front drove Assad’s forces out of Idlib in September, in a major setback for the government. Their hold on the province threatened Latakia.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it has struck 53 alleged Islamic State targets in the past 24 hours, destroying command centers, ammunition and fuel depots as well as training camps allegedly used by foreign militants. The ministry said the Islamic State positions were in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, as well as in Latakia and Idlib. Islamic State has a limited presence in Hama, away from where the fighting has been concentrated.

Russia insists it is mainly targeting the Islamic State group and other “terrorists,” but the multi-pronged ground-and-air offensive is being waged in areas controlled by mainstream rebels as well as the Nusra Front. The government ground offensive began on Oct. 7, a week after Russia began its airstrikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 airstrikes were carried out in Kfar Nabudeh, while government troops and Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters entered the village from the south. Another activist-run monitoring group, the Shaam News Network, said the insurgents ambushed government forces inside the village, which is reportedly laden with tunnels.

The Syrian military said in a statement that it took control of the village and others nearby. Activist Hadi Abdullah, who travels with insurgents to report from the front lines, said the fighters had regained control of the village.

During the last six days of ground operations, government troops have seized at least two villages in eastern Hama province, Atshan and Tal Sukayk, and a third in the plain area. Activists say rebels seized a village south of Idlib.

The Russian defense statement said its jets have hit mortar positions around Tal Sukayk in the last 24 hours, as well as a training camp for foreign militants in Mastouma, in Idlib.

“The terrorists in the past days were desperately trying to transport ammunition, armaments, fuel and supplies from Raqqa to the front line,” the ministry said, in reference to the northern province controlled by the Islamic State group, adding that a “significant part” of their supplies have been destroyed by Russian airstrikes.

The Syrian military statement also said troops gained control of an area in rural Aleppo province. It was not immediately clear whether the area had previously been controlled by Islamic State or other insurgents.

In a separate development, the French Defense Ministry said it cannot confirm whether some French citizens were killed in its airstrikes last week on the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, Raqqa.