Syrian pro-government forces retake key town in Latakia province from rebels

Syrian government forces monitoring an area near the village of Khan Tuman, south of Aleppo, on Dec 22, 2015.
Syrian government forces monitoring an area near the village of Khan Tuman, south of Aleppo, on Dec 22, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (REUTERS) - Syrian pro-government forces recaptured the rebel-held town of Rabiya in the western coastal province of Latakia on Sunday, Syrian state television and a Britain-based monitoring group said.

The advance was backed by Russian air strikes and was directed partly by Russian officers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It would likely allow pro-government forces to push right up to the Turkish border, the monitor said.

Earlier this month, pro-government forces recaptured Salma, another town in Latakia's northern countryside, in one of the most significant gains since Russia intervened in the war.

"It is the second most important base for (rebel) fighters in the northern Latakia countryside" after Salma, which was retaken on Jan 12, Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said.

Moscow intervened in Syria's civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in September. The conflict, which broke out after an uprising in 2011, has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced a further 11 million.

Peace talks between the government and opposition groups are due to take place in Geneva on Monday, although disagreements, partly over who will take part on the rebel side, have cast doubt on whether they will go ahead.

Russia's air raids have been concentrated mostly in the west of the country in an attempt to reverse rebel gains last year that threatened the coastal heartlands of Assad's Alawite minority.

The army and its allies have gained ground in recent months in Latakia, Aleppo and Deraa provinces, but rebels have managed to advance in other regions including Hama province.

Russia has said its intervention was to target the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group. However, US officials say that most of the Russian air strikes have hit other rebel groups fighting Mr Assad, including foreign-backed insurgents.

Mr Abdulrahman said Rabiya was the most important base in the Jabal Turkman (Turkmen Mountain) area of Latakia, which borders Turkey.

Ankara, which opposes Mr Assad, has said it will continue supporting moderate rebels in Syria and Turkmen fighters battling pro-Syrian government forces.