Syrian army, Hezbollah allies attack IS near Lebanon border
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces and allied Lebanese militant Hezbollah fighters have captured several Islamic State positions on strategic hilltops along the Syrian-Lebanese border, a military outlet said Friday.
The captures come ahead of an anticipated Lebanese offensive to clear the extremists from their side of the frontier. Separately, the Russian military said Friday that its aircraft are supporting a Damascus government offensive against the Islamic State group in a town in central Syria.
The area taken includes several hilltops in the western Qalamoun mountain range on the Syrian side of the border, according to the Central Military Media outlet. The outlet posted video showing forces fighting their way up the hills, under the cover of artillery fire.
This is the second push by the government in the area - in July, Hezbollah and the Syrian army defeated a pocket of al-Qaida-linked fighters nearby.
In Moscow, Russia's Defense Ministry said the Syrian army is finalizing its push to encircle IS militants in the town of Akerbat in Hama province.
Syrian troops have already seized key heights in the area, cutting off avenues of supply for the militants, according to the Russian statement. The militants have started fleeing the area in small groups, making their way toward Deir el-Zour, the largest city still under IS control, the ministry said. It added that Russian drones are patrolling the area round-the-clock, directing air strikes.
Russia has waged an air campaign in Syria since September 2015, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces gain ground and achieve key victories.
The ministry also announced that Russian representatives signed a deal on Friday with Faylaq al-Rahman, a Syrian rebel group, to join a de-escalation zone agreement for Eastern Ghouta, an eastern Damascus. The deal was signed in Geneva and is to go into force later in the day, the ministry said.
Last month, another rebel group in the area, Jaysh al-Islam, joined the de-escalation agreement.
The de-escalation zone in Eastern Ghouta is one of four proposed in a plan approved in May by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The plan includes a cessation of hostilities, a halt to Assad's air force flights over designated areas, and provisions for humanitarian aid access.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.