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Syrian army's offensive gains from Russian airstrikes, says general

The Syrian army's chief of staff said that Russia's airstrikes have greatly aided Damascus' ground offensive. The statement comes amid media reports that Russian cruise missiles went astray and landed in Iran.

Media outlets citing US officials said at least four of the cruise missiles launched by Russia at targets in Syria on Wednesday went astray and landed in Iran. The Russian Defense Ministry responded to the reports by reaffirming that all the missiles struck their intended targets in Syria.

Russia had launched 26 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, which reportedly hit 11 targets in Syria, including alleged "Islamic State" hideouts.

Moscow has expanded its military operations against foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with heavy bombing by warplanes and cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea.

Syrian army gains

General Ali Abdullah Ayoub, the Syrian army's chief of staff, said Thursday in a rare televised appearance that the military gained ground in opposition-held areas in its latest offensive with the support of Russian airstrikes.

"Today, the Syrian Arab armed forces began a wide-ranging attack with the aim of eliminating the terrorist groups and liberating the areas and towns that suffered from their scourge and crimes," Ayoub said.

"After the Russian airstrikes, which reduced the fighting ability of Daesh and other terrorist groups, the Syrian Armed Forces kept the military initiative," Ayoub noted, referring the "Islamic State" militant group by its Arabic acronym.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told state television that the government did not recognize a distinction between the "Islamic State" and moderate Syrian rebels.

"There is no difference between Nusra Front, Daesh and the Free Syrian Army - if it still exists," Mekdad said, according to the AP news agency. "They started [the armed opposition] and taught Daesh and Nusra all these crimes committed against Syria now."

Russian airstrikes continue

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that its air force hit 27 "terrorist" targets in Syria overnight.

"Russian warplanes conducted 22 flights overnight. The crew of Sukhoi Su-34, Sukhoi Su-24M and Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft struck 27 terrorist targets on Syrian territory," the Ministry said in a statement.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Moscow's air campaign a "troubling escalation" of the more than four-year-old war in Syria.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday that Russia did not provide prior warning that it would launch the cruise missiles, describing the action as "unprofessional behavior."

The United States has also criticized Russia for attacking rebel groups opposed to Assad rather than IS targets in Syria.

"Greater than 90 percent of the strikes that we've seen them take to date have not been against ISIL or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists," said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.

"They've been largely against opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don't want to see the Assad regime stay in power."

ls/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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