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Oct 23, 2015 10:57 PM

Russian airstrikes in Syria welcomed by refugees

The Associated Press

LATAKIA, Syria (AP) Nearly a month of Russian airstrikes in Syria has boosted morale at a refugee camp in a suburb of this coastal city, where residents displaced by the long civil war had words of praise Friday for President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's bombing campaign.

Russia held talks in Vienna with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey staunch foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad but they remained deeply divided over his future. Secretary of State John Kerry said the countries' representatives would meet again as early as Oct. 30 to discuss how to end the civil war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised Moscow's profile this week in the Syrian crisis, meeting with Assad at the Kremlin, putting its military muscle on display for journalists, and engaging in diplomatic efforts by discussing a political settlement to the conflict. Russia is Assad's prime backer, along with Iran.

Kerry said that despite the Russian and Iranian support, the U.S. and allied nations "understand that Assad creates an impossible dynamic for peace" a situation that "has to be resolved." But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow's backing for Assad remains strong despite what he described as "rumors" that the current talks were aimed at eventually easing him from power.

Despite being unable to resolve their differences, Kerry said the Vienna meeting "was constructive and productive and succeeded in surfacing some ideas, which I am not going to share today, but which I hope have a possibility of changing the dynamic."

Russia says the airstrikes it began Sept. 30 are targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists in Syria, while the West maintains the campaign is bolstering Assad against his foes.

The bombing runs originating from Hemeimeem air base in Assad's coastal stronghold of Latakia province are winning praise for Putin from displaced Syrians who are living in a camp near the provincial capital.

"I hope that with Russian pilots' help, our military will advance and defeat terrorists so that we could return to our homes," said Ahmad Attan, a camp resident who served in the Syrian military and was wounded in the fighting.

Another camp resident, Fadila Mahmud Naasan, said her son served in the army and their family had to flee militant attacks on Assad supporters. She lost her leg because of illness while in a refugee camp.

During a tour arranged by the Russian Defense Ministry, a busload of Moscow-based journalists rolled into the camp next to a sports stadium, drawing shouts of "Putin, thank you!" from the inhabitants.

Latakia province is in the heartland of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. It has remained firmly under government control and has largely been spared the destruction that most of the country has suffered in the conflict that began in 2011.

The Russian airstrikes have allowed Syrian troops and their allies from Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group to launch multiple ground offensives in northern, central and southern Syria as well as in the rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

At a briefing in a Syrian military residential compound near the base, spokesman Gen. Ali Maihub said the Syrian army was continuing to advance against its opponents. He reeled off reports of militants killed and their vehicles and weapons destroyed.

Activists reported that overnight airstrikes killed 11 militants from the Islamic State, but also at least seven civilians in the extremists' stronghold of Raqqa in eastern Syria. The activists from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the group known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered said the strikes were believed to have been carried out by Russian jets.

Syrian activists also said at least 14 civilians, including children, were killed when Syrian jets bombed a town in the central province of Homs.

The Observatory said one target was hit Friday in the town of Talbiseh. The Syrian Revolution Talbiseh, a Facebook page operated by activists in the town, posted video of the airstrikes. They showed a street covered with debris of a collapsed building and white smoke above the heads of men searching for survivors.

Talbiseh, north of the provincial capital Homs, has come under intense airstrikes by Syrian and Russian jets. On the first day of the Russian airstrikes, more than 30 civilians were killed in Talbiseh, activists said. Moscow denied hitting civilians.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said the government seized two villages south of the provincial capital Aleppo in the north, an area where Free Syrian Army rebels and other Islamist factions are based.

But southeast of the city, where the Islamic State has a strong presence, the group said it had advanced on a major road linking Aleppo to the central provinces of Hama and Homs.

In a statement posted on IS-affiliated media, the group said it took control of eight checkpoints from the government after carrying out two suicide bombings, leaving dozens killed and destroying three tanks.

The Observatory reported intense clashes and Russian jets bombed the area, killing 16 IS members.

Putin said Thursday that Assad had told him he is ready to talk with his political foes. Putin also defended Russia's bombing campaign, saying it would set the stage for peace talks.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Vienna, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.


This version corrects the name of Ahmad Attan.


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