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

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In this photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, Syrian army rocket launchers 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. CIA-backed rebels in Syria, who had begun to put serious pressure on President Bashar Assad’s forces, are now under Russian bombardment with little prospect of rescue by their American patrons, U.S. officials say. Over the past week, Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against U.S.-funded groups and other moderate opposition in a concerted effort to weaken them, the officials say. (AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Photo via AP)

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes seized control of 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 the country 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 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.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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