|Russian airstrikes in Syria|
(Image: Samaa TV)
AFP: Syrian regime forces backed by Russian air strikes advanced in the centre of the country Monday, sparking the fiercest clashes with rebels since Moscow's air campaign began, a monitor said.
Syrian state television said regime forces had captured the village of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province, where they are pressing an operation on both sides of the strategic Damascus-Aleppo highway.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said clashes were ongoing after regime forces entered the village.
"Regime forces captured the southern district of Kafr Nabuda backed by more than 20 Russian air strikes," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
"The clashes are the fiercest since the Russian air campaign began on September 30."
Syrian government forces appear to be targeting the town of Khan Sheikhun, which lies on the strategic highway just across the provincial border in neighbouring Idlib.
Many of Russia's air raids so far have focused on the area where the borders of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet.
Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast is a stronghold of the regime and the location of President Bashar al-Assad's ancestral village.
Idlib province is controlled by a powerful rebel alliance called the Army of Conquest which includes Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
In recent months, the alliance has sought to expand from Idlib into Hama and the strategic Sahl al-Ghab plain between the three provinces in a bid to target Latakia.
Abdel Rahman said the rebels were sending reinforcements to Kafr Nabuda to battle the regime, which was also shelling other parts of Hama and Latakia provinces.
A military source, meanwhile, told AFP regime forces had taken at least five villages in northern Latakia province since they began their ground operations in tandem with Russian strikes.
Moscow began air strikes in Syria at the end of last month, saying it was targeting the ISIS group and other "terrorists".
But rebels and their backers accuse the Russians of targeting mainly non-jihadist groups.
Elsewhere in Syria, a military source said regime forces had captured the "duty-free zone" area north of the city of Aleppo from rebels.
Aleppo city is divided between rebel control in the east and government control in the west, but the situation is largely reversed in the countryside surrounding the city.
The source said the regime advance would help protect territory it holds in the area, including the Sheikh Najjar industrial area to the city's east.