Syria army 'seizes' key rebel stronghold in Latakia

Beirut (AFP) - Syria's army and allied forces on Tuesday took full control from rebel groups of the strategic town of Salma, in the northwestern province of Latakia, state television reported.

In a breaking news flash, the channel said the army, backed by the pro-government National Defence Forces militia, had also seized hilltops surrounding the town.

Government forces were combing the area for mines and explosive devices "left behind by terrorist groups in the buildings, streets, and squares of the town," it said.

The town's recapture is a major boost for Syria's beleaguered army, which had been mostly locked in a stalemate with rebel factions in the province.

Since 2012, Salma had been the main bastion for opposition groups in hilly Latakia, which remains largely controlled by government forces.

- Assad thanks 'friendly nations' -

Opposition forces in Latakia province -- including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front -- are largely based in the northern and northeastern areas of Jabal Akrad and Jabal Turkman.

Regime forces have fought fierce battles in recent months to retake those areas with help from Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters and from Russian air strikes.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russia conducted more than 120 air strikes over 48 hours in support of the army's Salma offensive.

Syrian troops have since September 30 been backed by an intense air campaign by Russia, a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

On Tuesday, Russian strikes killed 35 civilians in the provinces of Idlib, in Syria's northwest, and Aleppo, in the north, the Observatory said.

Twenty-one civilians were killed in Russian raids on Maaret al-Numan, an opposition-held town in Idlib province, it said.

The toll included two paramedics, two media activists and one child.

Another 14 civilians, including three children, were killed in Russian raids on Manbij, a town in Aleppo province held by the Islamic State jihadist group, the monitor said.

Rights groups have condemned Russia for killing civilians in its air war, but Moscow insists it is fighting extremist groups.

In comments carried by state news agency SANA on Tuesday, Assad said the support of "friendly nations" like Iran and Russia had allowed Syria to fight off "terrorism".

Speaking after meeting with Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Assad said he "appreciated the positions of Iran, which supported Syria in the face of terrorism".

"Friendly nations, chiefly Iran and Russia, have played an important role in supporting Syrians over the past five years to score victories in their war against takfiri (extremist Sunni) terrorism," Assad said.

Since the country's uprising broke out nearly five years ago, Syria's government has regularly referred to all its opponents as "terrorists".

On Tuesday, Fazli said Iran had "robustly" supported the Syrian people, who are engaged "in a global war against terrorism and takfiri extremist ideas," SANA reported.

He said on Monday that Iran was equipping and training Syrian government forces but not providing direct aid.

Last year, a US official said as many as 2,000 fighters from Iran and its regional allies were supporting Syria's army in offensives against rebels.

Iran denies having fighters on the ground in Syria.

The conflict in Syria erupted in March 2011 with anti-regime protests, which spiralled into a full-fledged war that has left more than 260,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.