BEIRUT (AP) – Intense fighting between insurgents and Syrian troops continued Sunday in the country’s center amid new territorial gains for the government, backed by Russian airstrikes, activists and government officials reported.
The fighting Sunday was on multiple fronts in the northern part of the central province of Hama and southern Idlib, a rebel-controlled province.
A Syrian military official said his troops took over Tak Sukayk, a village in the northern part of the rural province of Hama, bordering the northwestern province of Idlib. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The new territorial gain, following the government control of the nearby village of Atshan, came days after the government launched a wide-ranging ground offensive. That offensive was made possible by Russian airstrikes that began Sept. 30.
The fighting is concentrated in Hama and the northern Idlib provinces, where a consortium of mainstream rebels as well as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are operating.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group that relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the rebels advanced on a hill overlooking Atshan overnight. The group said the rebels shelled government troops in the newly seized villages.
The Local Coordination Committees, another monitoring group, said government helicopters and suspected Russian jets struck at a third village, Tamanah, north of the newly government-controlled villages.
Both the Observatory and the LCC reported there were also intense clashes and Russian airstrikes in rural Latakia, the coastal province that is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Observatory said there were Russian airstrikes there too.
Russia, a key ally of Assad, has insisted its airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State group and other terrorists. But U.S. officials said this week that Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against U.S.-funded groups and other moderate opposition groups in a concerted effort to weaken them.