Middle East

Syria conflict: Army captures western towns from IS

Syrian government soldiers in Achan, Hama province, Syria (11 October 2015) Image copyright AP
Image caption Syria's army has taken territory from the opposition and IS since Russia's air strikes began

Syrian government forces are reported to have gained ground from Islamic State (IS) in the west of the country.

State media and activists said troops, backed by Russian air strikes, had seized the towns of Mahin and Hawwarin.

They lie to the east of a strategically important motorway connecting Damascus with major cities to the north.

The army has launched a series of offensives since Russia launched an air campaign to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's government on 30 September.

Russia has said it has targeted only "terrorists", but activists say its strikes have mainly hit Western-backed rebel groups which are opposed to IS.

Missile strikes disrupt flights

On Monday, the official Sana news agency reported that army units and local pro-government militiamen had taken full control of Mahin and Hawwarin, about 65km (40 miles) south-east of the city of Homs, after destroying IS positions in the towns.

A military source said a large number of IS militants had been killed and that soldiers were dismantling bombs planted on roads, in farmland and homes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said Syrian and Russian aircraft had carried out dozens of strikes in support of the ground assault.

In addition to lying to the east of the north-south motorway connecting Damascus and Homs, Mahin and Hawwarin are close to the roads that link the IS-held town of Palmyra.

In a separate development on Monday, civilian flights in the Middle East faced further disruption as a result of Russian missile strikes in Syria.

Airports in northern Iraq have been closed for two days, and flights in and out of the Lebanese capital Beirut are being routed around an exclusion zone in the northern part of the eastern Mediterranean.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Government forces took Mahin after a fierce battle with IS militants

The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq has protested to Moscow about the flight of cruise missiles launched in the Caspian Sea over its territory.

Russian warships in the Mediterranean are also firing eastwards into Syria.

Talks in Tehran on Monday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were expected to focus on the conflict in Syria and renewed international efforts to negotiate a political solution.

Iran and Russia have been staunch allies of President Assad throughout the four-year war, which has left more than 250,000 people dead and forced more than 11 million from their homes.

They were among 19 countries which signed a UN statement setting a deadline of 1 January for the start of peace talks between the government and opposition.