Russian warships fire cruise missiles into Syria

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Russian Warships Launch Dozens of Missiles Toward Syria

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles Wednesday as Syrian government troops launched a ground offensive in central Syria in the first major combined air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in the country last week.

The missiles flew nearly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) over Iran and Iraq and struck Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in the north and Idlib province in the northwest, Russian officials said. The Islamic State group has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has a strong presence in Idlib.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Russia was continuing to strike targets other than Islamic State militants, adding that he was concerned about the Syrian ground offensive backed by Moscow's airpower.

The latest developments came a week after Russia began its airstrikes in Syria, its longtime ally, on Sept. 30, and added a new dimension to the complex war that has torn the Mideast country apart since 2011.

A Syrian official and activists said government troops pushed into areas in the central province of Hama and south of Idlib in the boldest multipronged attack on rebel-held areas, benefiting from the Russian air cover. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Moscow has mainly targeted central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to President Bashar Assad's strongholds in Damascus, and along the Mediterranean coast where Russia has a naval base.

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Russian warships fire cruise missiles into Syria
Syrian refugee child Jana Makkiyeh, 3, whose family comes from Damascus, Syria, holds a teddy bear while standing near her family's tent at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers in Roszke, southern Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. Leaders of the United Nations refugee agency warned Tuesday that Hungary faces a bigger wave of 42,000 asylum seekers in the next 10 days and will need international help to provide shelter on its border, where newcomers already are complaining bitterly about being left to sleep in frigid fields. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
A Syrian refugee woman and her daughter, right, sleep while waiting in a bus before being taken by Hungarian police to board a train to the Austrian border, in Roszke, southern Hungary, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. With Hungary cracking down, desperate people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere struggled to make it into the country, hoping to reach Western Europe before it was too late. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
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Afghan child Sohrab Naveed, 1, whose family comes from Kabul Afghanistan, is held by his mother while waiting with others to get into a bus that will take them to the center for asylum seekers, after crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary,Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. At least four countries Friday firmly rejected a European Union plan to impose refugee quotas to ease a worsening migrant crisis that Germany's foreign minister said was "probably the biggest challenge" in the history of the 28-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
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Refugees buy tickets at the port of Mitylene on the northeast Greek island of Lesbos to get on board a ferry traveling to Athens, on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. This island of some 100,000 residents has been transformed by the sudden new population of some 20,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)
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Syrian refugees wait at the port of Lesbos island, Greece, to board a ferry traveling to Athens, on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. The island of some 100,000 residents has been transformed by the sudden new population of some 20,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
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The Russian airstrikes strikes appear to have emboldened Syrian troops to launch the ground push after a string of setbacks in northwestern Syria in recent months.

The Islamic State group is not present in the areas where the ground fighting is underway.

The offensive in central Syria and the ensuing clashes with militants, including the Nusra Front, was the first major ground fighting since the Russian campaign began.

In televised remarks to President Vladimir Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 26 missile strikes were conducted from four warships in the Caspian. Shoigu insisted the operation destroyed all the targets and did not launch any strikes on civilian areas.

The launches marked the combat debut of the Russian Kalibr long-range cruise missiles, equivalent to U.S. Tomahawk missiles.

"The fact that we launched precision weapons from the Caspian Sea to the distance of about 1,500 kilometers and hit all the designated targets shows good work by military industrial plants and good skills of personnel," Putin said.

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Russian warships fire cruise missiles into Syria
This photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, shows a target hit during a Russian air raid in Syria. Russia has been carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State fighters in Syria since the end of September at the request of President Bashar Assad, Russia's long-term ally. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: A Syrian man runs past the rubble of a building destroyed in the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians search for survivors in the rubble of buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians evacuate people from damaged buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians evacuate people from damaged buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 17: Smoke rises from an opposition-controlled residential area in Aleppo, Syria following the Russian airstrikes on October 17, 2015. (Photo by Beha El-Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Pentagon officials urged the Russian military on Thursday to focus its airstrikes in Syria on Islamic State fighters rather than opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.S. administration officials said. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches cruise missileS in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, targeting what Moscow said were Islamic State positions. U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces. (Homs Media Centre via AP)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official website on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a weekly meeting with ministers of the Russian Government in Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence September 30, 2015 outside Moscow, Russia. Vladimir Putin has received permission from Parliament for Russian military forces to launch airstrikes in Syria, two days after the Russian leader spoke to the UN and called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, rear center, holds a meeting with senior government officials at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria on Wednesday for the first time, after President Vladimir Putin received parliamentary approval to send Russian troops to Syria. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to a weekly meeting with ministers of the Russian Government in Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence September 30, 2015 outside Moscow, Russia. Vladimir Putin has received permission from Parliament for Russian military forces to launch airstrikes in Syria, two days after the Russian leader spoke to the UN and called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows damaged buildings and a minaret in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province. Russian warplanes carried out air strikes in three Syrian provinces, including Homs, along with regime aircraft on September 30, according to a Syrian security source. Earlier in the day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported at least 27 civilians had been killed in air strikes in the Homs province, adding that the strikes hit Rastan, Talbisseh and Zaafarani. The other Syrian security source said the Russian strikes had hit Rastan and Talbisseh in the province of Homs. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD TAHA (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows a general view of deserted streets and damaged buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province. Russia confirmed on Septemer 30 that it carried out its first airstrike in Syria, near the city of Homs, marking the formal start of Moscow's military intervention in the 4.5-year-old conflict. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD TAHA (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - OCTOBER 01: A damaged vehicle is seen at the site of the alleged Russian airstrikes targeting the training camp of Suqour al-Jabal Brigades in Kafr Nabl town of Idlib, Syria on October 01, 2015. (Photo by Firas Khalife/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - OCTOBER 01: The training camp of Suqour al-Jabal Brigades is destroyed in the alleged Russian airstrikes in Kafr Nabl town of Idlib, Syria on October 01, 2015. (Photo by Firas Khalife/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Andrei Kartapolov of the Russian General Staff told Russian news agencies the strikes were planned so that the cruise missiles would fly "over unpopulated areas." Shoigu also said Russia has carried out 112 airstrikes on IS positions since Sept. 30.

Activists and rebels say the targets have included Western-backed fighters and other groups opposed to Assad's government.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a government offensive began on four fronts early Wednesday in Idlib and neighboring Hama provinces in what the group's director Rami Abdurrahman described as "the most intense fighting in months."

In Syria, the leader of a U.S.-backed rebel group Tajammu Alezzah confirmed the ground offensive in a text message to The Associated Press, saying Russian and Iranian soldiers were involved in the operation.

Russian officials deny sending any ground troops to the battlefield. Iran has been bolstering Assad by sending weapons and advisers, and helping arrange the deployment of Shiite fighters from Iraq and Hezbollah, as well as sending financial aid.

Last month, an intelligence sharing center was set up in Baghdad by Russia, Iraq, Iran and Syria to coordinate efforts to combat the Islamic State group.

Maj. Jamil al-Saleh said the offensive, accompanied by air cover and shelling, came from three fronts, including Latamneh, north of Hama province where his Tajammu Alezzah group is based, and Kfar Zeita to the north. The offensive targeted rural areas of Hama and Idlib that are almost totally controlled by rebel groups, he said.

Activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who is in Idlib, said government troops "heavily" shelled central areas after rebels attacked an army post and destroyed a tank. He said the government advance covered an area of over 16 kilometers (10 miles), and was a coordinated multipronged attack, the boldest push in the area by the government in months. The rebels repulsed back government troops, al-Ahmad said.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists in Syria, said the main launching point for government forces was the town of Morek on a highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its former commercial center. Rebels have controlled areas on the highway since 2012.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks and an armored personnel carrier in northern parts of Hama province near Idlib. Video on social media by rebel fighters showed government tanks burning, apparently after being hit by U.S.-made TOW missiles.

The Observatory said 37 Russian air raids hit on Wednesday alone.

Two helicopters were seen flying low in Morek, but escaped militant fire, the Observatory said. It was not immediately clear if the pilots were Russians or Syrians, and Assad's air force has Russian-made helicopters.

Although the Islamic State has no presence in the areas hit by airstrikes Wednesday, the Nusra Front is active in central and northern parts of the country - as are the Western-backed rebels. Russian officials have said the Nusra Front is among the groups it is targeting.

At a news conference in Rome, Carter said the U.S.-led coalition that also is conducting airstrikes in Syria has not agreed to cooperate with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State, and no collaboration is possible as long as Moscow continues to hit other targets.

He said the U.S. will conduct basic, technical talks with Russia about efforts to ensure that flights over Syria are conducted safely and, "That's it."

Washington is not prepared to cooperate with a strategy of Russia's that is "tragically flawed," he said.

"They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL," Carter said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. "We believe that is a fundamental mistake."

Since September 2014, the coalition has been hitting Islamic State positions mostly in northern and eastern parts of Syria, as well as in Iraq. U.S. aircraft are still flying attack and other missions daily over Syria, the Pentagon said.

At least one U.S. military aircraft changed its route over Syria recently to avoid coming dangerously close to Russian warplanes, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. He could not provide details, including the number of times this has happened.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed criticism of Russia's airstrikes, insisting they were mainly targeting the moderate Syrian opposition and therefore helping strengthen IS.

He called on Moscow to respect Turkey's airspace, saying the country would not "make any concessions" on matters concerning its border security.

Russian warplanes violated Turkey's borders on two separate occasions over the weekend, drawing strong protests from Turkey's NATO allies. Turkey scrambled F-16s in response and also summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge protests.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry said it had proposed a meeting between Turkish and Russian military officials in Ankara on avoiding Russian infringements of its airspace.

Syrian state TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that Russian warplanes attacked Islamic State group positions in the towns of Al-Bab and Deir Hafer in Aleppo province.

Russia's entry into the crowded and sometimes uncoordinated air wars in Syria is making the U.S. increasingly nervous, reflecting concern at the Pentagon and in Europe about the risk of accidents or unintended conflict.

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