Syrian army, backed by Russia, retakes key town, monitor says

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Syrian government troops, backed by Russian airstrikes, recaptured a strategic town Saturday from Islamist rebels in the central province of Hama, a group that monitors the conflict reported.

Regime troops overran the village of Atshan in north-eastern Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Atshan lies on a road linking Syria’s east and west.

“The actual aim of the regime is to advance into nearby areas, including the village of Tal Skak,” said Rami Abdel-Rahaman, who heads the observatory. “This will put the army in better control of the area.”

He said the area is of strategic importance to government forces because it brings them closer to the town of Khan Sheikoun, a stronghold of al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.

Khan Sheikhoun is located on a major road linking the capital, Damascus, to the northern province of Aleppo.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army, backed by fighters from the allied Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Russian fighter jets, started a major offensive against rebels on the outskirts of the provincial capital, also called Hama.

Syrian television said government troops advanced near Hama, killing more than 125 “terrorists,” a term used by state media to describe opposition rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The Russian Air Force flew 64 missions, hitting 55 targets in the past 24 hours, the Defence Ministry said Saturday.

The focus, it said, was command and communication centres, ammunition depots and training camps of Islamic State militants in Hama, the neighbouring provinces of al-Raqqa and Aleppa, and Damascus.

But the observatory said airstrikes also hit areas under the control of government opponents who are also fighting Islamic State.

Islamist rebels on Saturday recaptured a village in Aleppo from Islamic State, a day after the extremist militia overran it, the observatory said.

The Islamist rebels, including the coalition of Ahrar al-Sham, retook the village of Tal Soussin and are battling Islamic State over the control of Tal Qrah, a second village in the northern part of Aleppo, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Islamic State’s push in Aleppo threatens a main road used by rival jihadist rebels for access to the Turkish border.

Russia, an ally of al-Assad, started an air campaign in Syria on September 30 with the declared intent of hitting Islamic State, but its strikes on rebel groups have drawn an angry reaction from Gulf and Western countries that back the Syrian opposition.

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