Syrian army and Russian jets target rebel towns north of Homs

BEIRUT - Syrian army troops and their allies, backed by Russian jets, launched an attack on rebel-held towns north of the city of Homs on Thursday, Syrian state television and a group which monitors the war said.

The Russian air strikes hit targets around the town of Talbiseh and the villages of Teir Malla, Dar Kabira and Khalidiya, a few miles north of the mainly government-held city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said Syrian soldiers and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah were involved in the assault. Hezbollah's al-Manar television channel said the Syrian army was carrying out a land offensive in northern Homs province.

The Observatory's director Rami Abdulrahman said six rebel fighters and two civilians had been killed.

The Sunni Muslim town of Talbiseh and the surrounding villages north of Homs are located in an enclave of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

A news flash on state TV said the army had begun a military operation in the north Homs countryside after "concentrated air strikes and heavy preparatory artillery shelling on the terrorist groupings and their bases".

Recapturing the area would help reassert Assad's control over the main population centres of western Syria and secure territory linking Damascus to the coastal heartland of his minority Alawite sect.

The Syrian army backed by foreign allies including Iranian forces has launched several ground offensives to retake insurgent-held territory since Russian jets started air strikes against rebel targets mainly in western Syria two weeks ago.

The army operations include a campaign to recapture rebel-held land in Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces in the northwest. Regional officials have also said the army, backed by Iranian reinforcements, is preparing for a major ground operation around Aleppo city, close to the Turkish border.