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Aug 21, 11:34 AM EDT

Russia boosts air campaign to help recapture key Syrian city

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MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia said Monday it has intensified its air campaign in Syria to help President Bashar Assad's forces drive Islamic State militants from Deir el-Zour, a major stronghold for the group, killing an estimated 800 militants across the country this month alone.

Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Russian jets are now making 60 to 70 flights a day to target militants heading from other areas to join the fight in the eastern city. He says Syrian troops are meanwhile advancing from three directions to encircle Deir el-Zour.

Syrian government forces control around half the city and a nearby air base, both of which are besieged by the militants. Rudskoi said militants fleeing U.S.-backed offensives in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa have poured into Deir el-Zour in recent months.

He said Syrian troops have also encircled Akerbat, an IS-held town in central Syria, and that Russian warplanes have targeted militant convoys trying to flee the area for Deir el-Zour.

Russia has waged an air campaign in Syria since September 2015 aimed at helping Assad's forces defeat IS as well as Syrian rebel groups. This month alone, Russian warplanes have flown 990 missions, destroying 40 armored vehicles, more than 100 trucks and killing about 800 militants, Rudskoi said.

Those casualties include more than 200 militants killed in a recent raid on an IS convoy heading toward Deir El-Zour, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Rudskoi said the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria has helped the Russian military to focus on battling IS.

Under a plan approved in May by Russia, Turkey and Iran that applies to three areas of the country, the government and Syrian rebels have agreed to cease hostilities, halt government air raids and improve humanitarian access. Russian military police are monitoring compliance at checkpoints around the three zones.

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