Heavy fighting in central Syria between army, rebels as Russia launches airstrikes

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DAMASCUS, Syria — 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.

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-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are operating.

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.

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.

The Russian airstrikes come as a U.S.-led coalition wages its own air campaign against the IS group in Syria and Iraq. U.S. defense officials held a 90-minute secure videoconference with their Russian counterparts Saturday to discuss steps to "promote safe flight operations over Syria."

"The discussions were professional and focused narrowly on the implementation of specific safety procedures," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

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.

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.

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