Fierce battles in central Syria amid Russian airstrikes

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes seized a village in central Syria on Saturday amid fierce clashes with rebels, part of a ground offensive launched earlier this week.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, Syrian army howitzers fire near the village of Morek in Syria. The Syrian army has launched an offensive this week in central and northwestern Syria aided by Russian airstrikes. (AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Photo via AP)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, Syrian army howitzers fire near the village of Morek in Syria. The Syrian army has launched an offensive this week in central and northwestern Syria aided by Russian airstrikes. (AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Photo via AP)

That offensive marked the first major air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russian officials say the airstrikes are targeting mainly Islamic State militants, but most strikes are hitting areas where the extremist group is not present.

The fighting is concentrated in Hama and the northern Idlib provinces, where a consortium of mainstream rebels as well as al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are operating.

In this image posted on the Twitter page of Ahrar al-Sham on Sept. 13, 2015, fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham group walk toward army positions in the western Akrad Mountain region in the coastal province of Latakia, Syria. The group has vowed to defeat what it calls Russian "occupation" of Syria after Moscow began launching airstrikes on insurgents last week. (Ahrar al-Sham Twitter page via AP)
In this image posted on the Twitter page of Ahrar al-Sham on Sept. 13, 2015, fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham group walk toward army positions in the western Akrad Mountain region in the coastal province of Latakia, Syria. The group has vowed to defeat what it calls Russian “occupation” of Syria after Moscow began launching airstrikes on insurgents last week. (Ahrar al-Sham Twitter page via AP)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said government troops seized control of Atshan on Friday amid intense Russian airstrikes in the region. It said troops also seized the nearby Um Hartein village.

Syrian troops have faced stiff resistance from the rebels, who have used advanced U.S.-made TOW missiles to attack Syrian tanks and armored vehicles.

This image taken from video provided by the Syrian activist-based media group Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in Hama, which has-been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows smoke rising after a Russian airstrike hit buildings in the town of Latamna in the area of Hama in Eastern Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in Hama via AP Video) MANDATORY CREDIT
This image taken from video provided by the Syrian activist-based media group Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in Hama, which has-been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows smoke rising after a Russian airstrike hit buildings in the town of Latamna in the area of Hama in Eastern Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in Hama via AP Video) MANDATORY CREDIT

The Russian defense ministry said in a statement that Russian planes flew 64 sorties and targeted 54 sites in the past 24 hours, without elaborating. Among the sites attacked, it said, were command outposts in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar 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.

FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 file image made from video provided by Hadi Al-Abdallah, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes in Kafr Nabel of the Idlib province, western Syria. Russian jets carried out a second day of airstrikes in Syria Thursday, but there were conflicting claims about whether they were targeting Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants or trying to shore up the defenses of President Bashar Assad. (Hadi Al-Abdallah via AP video, File)
FILE – In this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 file image made from video provided by Hadi Al-Abdallah, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes in Kafr Nabel of the Idlib province, western Syria. Russian jets carried out a second day of airstrikes in Syria Thursday, but there were conflicting claims about whether they were targeting Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants or trying to shore up the defenses of President Bashar Assad. (Hadi Al-Abdallah via AP video, File)

The Observatory said Russian warplanes on Saturday bombed a headquarters of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel group in Saraqeb, in Idlib province. There was no immediate confirmation or details.

Heavy fighting was also taking place in the al-Ghab plain in Hama province — a natural barrier between areas controlled by Sunni Muslims and the Alawite sect to which Assad and many of his loyalists belong.

Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people in the past four years, has displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. A U.S.-led coalition has been striking Islamic State targets in Syria for over a year.

A military official quoted by Syria’s state-run SANA said Saturday that two F-16s from the U.S.-led coalition violated Syrian airspace and targeted civilian infrastructure in Aleppo.

The unnamed official said the strikes destroyed two power plants in the Radwaniyah area east of Aleppo city, causing a blackout.

In this image posted on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State, shows Islamic State militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria. Islamic State militants seized several villages from rival insurgents north of Aleppo city Friday, in a surprise attack that came despite intensive Russian airstrikes that Moscow insists are targeting the extremist group, activists said. Arabic reads, "Targeting positions of the Alawite army in Tal Arn with mortar shells." (Islamic State militant website via AP)
In this image posted on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State, shows Islamic State militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria. Islamic State militants seized several villages from rival insurgents north of Aleppo city Friday, in a surprise attack that came despite intensive Russian airstrikes that Moscow insists are targeting the extremist group, activists said. Arabic reads, “Targeting positions of the Alawite army in Tal Arn with mortar shells.” (Islamic State militant website via AP)

The head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes key rebel backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar, meanwhile said Russia’s intervention could help defeat the IS group if it works with other nations battling the extremists.

“I am not downplaying the difficulties. The war against Daesh and defeating its dangers is possible if the opposing parties against Daesh, among them Russians, work together properly,” GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani said at an event in Abu Dhabi, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Saudi Arabia has denounced the Russian air campaign.

Also speaking at the event in Abu Dhabi Saturday was U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who is headed to Iran on Sunday. He called on all countries in the region, and the Security Council, to work toward a “credible political transition in Syria.”

“An end to this war is in everybody’s enlightened self-interest. Enough is enough,” he said.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Aya Batrawy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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