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'Islamic State' takes central Syrian town near key highway

The 'Islamic State' has reportedly seized a central Syrian town from government forces. The capture of Mahin, near a strategic road, marks a new effort from the jihadists to expand their presence in the country's center.

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Russia has stepped up its airstrikes in Homs province

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that "Islamic State" (IS) forces had captured Mahin in the central Homs province and were advancing northwest toward the majority-Christian town of Sadad.

Mahin lies around 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of the highway linking Homs to Syria's capital, Damascus, and Aleppo. The town also hosts a large military complex and arms depots.

The Observatory said the assault on Mahin began with suicide car bombs at government checkpoints, clearing the way for fighters to enter the city. Government soldiers were driven out. There were intense clashes on the outskirts of town and on the road to Sadad.

IS has seized large sections of Syria but its strongholds lie mainly in the north and east of the country. The group only began to establish a presence in Homs a few months ago when it seized the ancient city of Palmyra.

The IS advance on Sunday came despite Russian airstrikes against the militants in the region. In recent weeks the group has also

made considerable gains

in Aleppo, taking control of villages from rebel groups,

as well as a section of a highway

that serves as a supply route between government-controlled parts of the northern province.

War rages on

More than 250,000 people have died in Syria's four-year civil war, while millions have been displaced by the violence. The conflict began as an uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but has since escalated into a multisided war.

Diplomats from the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and more than a dozen other nations met in Vienna this week for talks aimed to end the conflict and pave the way for a political solution in Syria. At the meeting,

participants proposed a nationwide truce

and called for the renewal of a UN-led peace process.

On Sunday, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura was in Damascus briefing Syria's government, which had not been invited to attend the talks. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said "important" points were made in Vienna but he criticized negotiators for failing to convince Syria's critics to curb their support for "terrorism."

Assad's government has often referred to armed opposition forces as "terrorists," and has blamed Saudi Arabia and Turkey for backing them. Russia's air campaign, which seeks to prop up Assad, has mainly targeted those same rebels, as well as IS militants.

nm/jm (AP, Reuters)

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