Syria army retakes key hilltop in coastal province

Russian-backed Syrian government intensified its offensive to retake Jabal Nuba in recent weeks

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Syrian troops and allied militia pushed rebel fighters back on Wednesday from a hilltop overlooking a strategic highway in President Bashar al-Assad’s coastal heartland, state media said.

Citing a military source, state news agency SANA said army units and pro-government militia “took full control of the strategic Jabal Nuba after killing a number of terrorists.”

Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, told AFP that the hill overlooks the main rebel supply line between Latakia -- a bastion of Assad support -- and second city Aleppo.

The government intensified its offensive to retake Jabal Nuba in recent weeks and Russian warplanes had carried out raids in the area in support of the army.

On Wednesday, army units fought through the area’s dense brush and mountainous terrain, and were “combing through the area to clear any booby-trapped devices,” the military source said.

He said the army would continue to “tighten the noose” around rebel positions, including in the village of Salma, which has been in anti-government hands since 2012 and has been the target of heavy Russian bombardment.

Groups including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front have taken up positions in the area around the village, according to the Observatory.

The Britain-based monitor confirmed said Syrian army units were backed by Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in the offensive.

“The clashes also came with dozens of air strikes, rocket fire, and heavy shelling on the Jabal Akrad and Jabal Turkman regions,” the Observatory said.
Fierce fighting has rocked those areas in recent months as the regime seeks to recapture opposition-held territory in Latakia.

On November 24, anti-government factions destroyed a Russian helicopter after firing on it and forcing it to make an emergency landing near Jabal Nuba.

Russia began its air war in Syria in September and has said it is fighting ISIS and other “terrorist” organizations.

But tensions have skyrocketed in recent weeks since Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft over Latakia and rebels killed one of the pilots as he parachuted down after ejecting from the plane.