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Syria troops advance under Russian air cover

Damascus: Russian jets intensified their airstrikes today in central Syria as government forces battled 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 IS positions were in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, as well as in Latakia and Idlib. IS has a limited presence in Hama, away from where the fighting has been concentrated.

Russia insists it is mainly targeting the IS 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 October 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. It was not possible to reconcile the two accounts.

The Observatory reported that the fighting and air raids on Kfar Nabudeh left nine militants and five troops and pro-government gunmen dead.