Syria rebels ward off regime's Hama offensive
Regime soldiers withdrew from areas they had advanced into, around Hama's northern countryside only hours' earlier.
The retreat came after government forces lost a number of troops, armoured vehicles and weapons, the opposition said.
"The regime forces withdrew to their sites after being deterred by the rebels, who inflicted severe losses on them," said Hama-based media activist Hassan al-Amri.
He added that the Russian air force covered the regime forces' attack with eight raids on Kafr Zita, ten on al-Latamna and Kafr Nabuda, with two on the Sayyad area in Hama.
"Since last night, and until this morning, the regime forces had managed to take over the Madjana checkpoint and the village of Tuweiba near Kafr Nabuda, before the rebels re-took them during this afternoon's battles."
Abu Omar, media spokesperson for the al-Sham Brigades, backed the claims.
"The fighters were prepared for this offensive, which they deterred through a counterattack, during which they destroyed more than 15 tanks and some other weapons," he said.
Sources also said that one Russian officer was killed in the fighting, while three others were injured and taken to a Hama hospital.
However, there was some confusion among rebel factions about whether they had achieved a complete rout of the regime force.
Abu Yazid Taftanaz, media spokesperson for the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, said that the regime forces had not fully withdrawn, and battles were ongoing.
"What happened was that the regime forces only advanced for a few metres before being deterred and withdrawing to where they started.
"The regime lost at least 35 fighters, as well as more than ten tanks and BMB vehicles," he added. "The regime forces did not expect this."
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The fighting comes as Russian airstrikes appear to have emboldened Syrian troops to launch a ground offensive after suffering a string of setbacks in north-western Syria over the past few months.
Early indications suggest that the rebels have been succcessful in holding off the initial regime advance.
There have been clashes in the north and east of Hama with a number of Syrian troops killed and one Russian soldier, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported.
The group added that eight tanks and four armoured personnel carriers were among the regime weaponry destroyed by rebel forces.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government offensive began on four fronts early on Wednesday in the north-western provinces of Idlib and neighbouring Hama.
Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said it was "the most intense fighting in months".
Activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who is currently in Idlib, said government troops were "heavily" shelling central areas after rebels attacked an army post and destroyed a tank.
The Observatory and Ahmad both said the main launching point for government forces was the town of Morek on the highway that links the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial centre. Rebels have controlled areas on the highway since 2012.
The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks and an armoured personnel carrier in northern parts of Hama province near Idlib.
The Observatory said two helicopters believed to be Russian were seen flying at low altitude in Morek.
It added that militants opened fire at the helicopters without striking them. It was not immediately clear if the pilots were Russian or Syrian.
The Islamic State group has no presence in the area that was attacked on Wednesday but al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, is active in central and northern Syria, as are Western-backed rebels.
Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying that Russian warplanes attacked Islamic State group positions in the town of al-Bab and the nearby town of Deir Hafer in the northern province of Aleppo.
Russian warships joined in strikes in Syria with a volley of cruise missile attacks on Wednesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged his air force would back a ground offensive by government forces.
Ships from the Caspian Sea fleet launched 26 cruise missile strikes against 11 targets, Moscow said.
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Putin has stressed the need for cooperation with the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants, saying that, without joint coordination with the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the intervention was unlikely to work.
Russian efforts "will be synchronised with the actions of the Syrian army on the ground and the actions of our air force will effectively support the offensive operation of the Syrian army", Putin added at a meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russian forces have struck 112 targets in war-torn Syria in a bombing campaign that Moscow says is targeting the IS group, Shoigu told Putin in the televised briefing.
"The intensity of the strikes is increasing," he said.
In a sign that Russia was ramping up its involvement, Shoigu said that it was now using its navy to hit sites in Syria on Wednesday with cruise missiles.
"In addition to the air force, four warships of the Caspian flotilla have been involved," Shoigu said, adding that the warships had carried out 26 cruise missile strikes against 11 targets.
Russia began airstrikes in Syria a week ago, following a request by long-standing ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow insists it is hitting IS targets but the US and its allies fear that Moscow is aiming to bolster Assad's regime.
Putin also said that French leader Francois Hollande had suggested a possible plan to get government forces to combine efforts with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, the main moderate opposition group fighting the Damascus regime.
A Hollande aide later denied he had said any such thing. "The president spoke of the necessary presence of the Syrian opposition around a future negotiating table. The rest is not a French idea," he told reporters in Strasbourg.
However, Hollande stated that a failure to act in Syria risks "total war" for the region.
Meanwhile, the United States has said it is not cooperating with Russia over airstrikes in Syria beyond basic safety precautions.
Defence Secretary Ashton Carter described Russia's action there as "fundamentally mistaken".
"I have said before that we believed that Russia has the wrong strategy - they continue to hit targets that are not ISIL. We believe this is a fundamental mistake," Carter told a press conference in Rome, referring to the Islamic State group by an alternative name.
"Despite what the Russians say, we have not agreed to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue a mistaken strategy and hit these targets."