Syria rebels battle IS as US, Russia plan airspace talks
Rebels battled Saturday to reverse an Islamic State group advance on Syria's Aleppo, as Washington said it would resume talks with Moscow to avoid accidents in the skies over the war-torn country.
Moscow meanwhile continued its aerial campaign in Syria, launching a series of new strikes overnight and into Saturday targeting areas in and around the regime stronghold of Latakia province.
In the northern province of Aleppo, Islamist rebels including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group recaptured one of several villages seized by IS in its Friday advance, a monitor said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels were battling to take back a second village from the jihadist group, which is now within 20 kilometres (12 miles) of Aleppo city.
The IS offensive has brought the jihadist group closer than ever to Aleppo, threatening to further complicate the situation in Syria's second city which has long been divided between government and rebel control.
The regime holds the west of the city, while the rebels hold the east, but the situation is largely reversed in the countryside.
The IS advance threatens both regime and rebel forces in the city, including a strategic road that leads from rebel-held Aleppo to the Turkish border.
- New Russian strikes -
Elsewhere in Aleppo province, the Observatory reported a powerful blast in the town of Al-Bab, which is held by IS.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said the blast hit an explosives factory and weapons depot belonging to the jihadists, but that the cause of the explosion was unclear.
Warplanes had been seen overhead around the time of the blast, he said, adding it was unclear if they were Russian, Syrian or belonged to the US-led coalition also bombing the country.
Overnight and into Saturday morning, Russian planes carried out strikes in Latakia, Hama and Idlib provinces, which have been key targets of Moscow's raids despite limited IS presence.
The monitor reported at least two Russian strikes in northwestern Syria's Idlib province, which is controlled by the Army of Conquest rebel alliance that includes Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
It also said Russian strikes in Idlib had destroyed a base belonging to the Division 13 rebel group that once received US weapons.
It reported additional strikes in the north of coastal Latakia province, a regime stronghold, and in northwest Hama province, in the centre of the country.
Russia has focused much of its airpower on the area where Latakia, Idlib and Hama provinces meet in an apparent bid to prevent the Army of Conquest alliance from expanding from Idlib into Hama and Latakia.
Syrian government troops have also been waging a ground operation in tandem with the strikes in Hama province.
On Saturday, Syrian state media said the army had killed "75 Al-Nusra Front members and destroyed their bases and TOW (anti-tank) missiles and artillery-equipped armoured vehicles in Um Hreitan in Hama."
It also reported Syrian air strikes against villages in Hama and Idlib and said residents were returning to a village in Hama recaptured by government forces this week.
- US, Russia talks -
Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, saying it was targeting IS and other "terrorist" groups.
Rebels and their international backers accuse Moscow of focusing more on moderate and Islamist opposition forces than the jihadist group.
The Russian campaign also complicates the efforts of the US-led coalition carrying out strikes against IS in Syria.
On Friday, the Pentagon said it would resume talks with Moscow aimed at preventing military accidents in Syrian airspace after it received a reply to US proposals.
"Department leaders are reviewing the Russian response and talks are likely to take place as soon as this weekend," spokesman Peter Cook said.
Also Friday, Washington acknowledged it had decided to "pause" a controversial programme to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight IS.
The programme had been slow to get off the ground because of stringent vetting, and both small cohorts that have so far entered Syria have met with disaster.
The first was attacked by Al-Nusra, which kidnapped and killed several of its members, while the second surrendered some of its weapons to the Al-Qaeda affiliate to ensure safe passage.
© 2015 AFP