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Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian troops retake central areas from Islamic State

French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Nov. 23.

French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Nov. 23.

(Stephane De Sakutin / AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes captured areas from the Islamic State group in the central province of Homs on Monday, in the latest push since the aerial campaign began nearly two months ago, state media and a monitoring group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops backed by pro-government gunmen entered the town of Mheen and the nearby village of Hawareen after midnight Sunday and were in full control of the area hours later.

Syrian state TV also reported that Mheen and Hawareen were captured, adding that government forces were removing the mines and explosives left behind by the extremist group to try to slow down the army’s advance.

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“A big victory was achieved by our heroes,” said a Syrian TV reporter embedded with government troops in Mheen.

The capture of Mheen and Hawareen helps secure the highway linking the capital, Damascus, to the city of Homs. The government’s next push is expected to target the nearby town of Qaryatain and later the historic town of Palmyra, which was taken by Islamic State in May.

President Bashar Assad said in remarks published Sunday that his forces were advancing on almost all fronts thanks to Russian airstrikes.

Russia has conducted an air campaign in Syria since Sept. 30, and the airstrikes have sharply intensified in recent days.

The head of the Syrian Observatory, Rami Abdul Rahman, said Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships played a major role in opening the way for troops to advance in the desert near Homs. He said about 50 militants were killed in days of fighting in Mheen, Hawareen and surrounding areas.

Homs-based opposition activist Bebars Telawi said government forces were backed by members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group.

Syrian troops have captured dozens of villages in northern, western and central Syria since the Russian airstrikes began.

Amid the gains by Syrian forces, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday that the U.S. was seeking new military, counter-terrorism and diplomatic ideas to destroy Islamic State faster.

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Speaking during a meeting with senior Arab officials in the United Arab Emirates, Kerry acknowledged the difficulty in eliminating extremists who’ve exploited four years of chaos in the Middle East to become a global threat. He said greater military cooperation with Russia was possible under the right circumstances.

“The key is to destroy Daesh rapidly in Syria and in Iraq,” Kerry told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “I’d like to see us go faster. The president would like to see us go faster.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran on Monday for talks with Iranian leaders that were expected to focus on an international peace plan intended to end the Syrian conflict.

The visit came as Russia, the United States, France and others are talking about possible joint action against Islamic State after the terrorist attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt. Putin’s trip also came on the heels of agreement on an incomplete peace plan that calls for talks between Assad and his foes.

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Moscow and Tehran have been the key backers of Assad throughout his nation’s civil war, which has killed more 250,000 people and turned millions more into refugees.

In Paris, meantime, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that he would seek parliamentary approval this week for Britain to join U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State extremists in Syria. Cameron also offered the use of a British air base in Cyprus for anti-Islamic State actions in Syria.

Speaking after meeting with French President Francois Hollande in the wake of the Paris attacks, Cameron said the two leaders agreed to increase counter-terrorism cooperation. He called for greater European Union-wide efforts to share intelligence to stop extremists.

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