REUTERS - The head of Syria's Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al-Qaida, urged insurgents on Monday to escalate attacks on President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect's strongholds in retaliation for what he said was the indiscriminate killing of Muslim Sunnis by invading Russians.
- Saudi Arabia, Europe Snub Russia's Overtures on Syria
- Hezbollah Senior Commander Killed in Syria Laid to Rest
- Iraqi Air Force Claims Hit on ISIS Leader al-Baghdadi
The audio message from Nusra's Abu Mohamad al-Golani, posted on YouTube, said Russia's military intervention since last week was aimed at saving Assad's rule from collapse but was doomed to fail, as had previous Iranian and Hezbollah military support.
"There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia and I call on all factions to ... daily hit their villages with hundreds of missiles as they do to Sunni cities and villages," Golani said.
Golani described the Russian intervention as a new Christian crusade from the east that was doomed to fail and came after a "string of victories made by the Mujahdeen" threatened Assad's rule.
"The war in Sham (Syria) will make the Russians forget the horrors of what they faced in Afghanistan. The new Russian invasion is the last dart in the weaponry of the enemies of Muslims and the enemies of Syria," he said.
Russia has dramatically intensified its bombing campaign in recent days. Moscow says it is targeting the Islamic State militant group, but most of its strikes have hit other rebel factions fighting against Assad, some of which have the support of Arab powers, Turkey or the United States.
Rebels also say Russia's "scorched earth" policy was killing dozens of civilians.
Nusra Front, a radical Muslim Sunni fundamentalist group, is one of the most powerful forces fighting the Syrian government in an increasingly complex conflict that Russia's intervention has only worsened.
Syrian government forces and their allies from the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, backed by Iranian military officers, have recently launched a massive ground offensive in coordination with the Russian air support.
They fought their fiercest clashes on Monday since the assault began, advancing in strategically important territory near the north-south highway linking Syria's main cities.
Russian warplanes carried out at least 30 air strikes on the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province in western Syria, and hundreds of shells hit the area.
The Syrian army announced the capture of Kafr Nabuda and four other villages in Hama province. It also said the army had seized Jub al-Ahmar, a highland area in Latakia province which will put more rebel positions in the nearby Ghab Plain within range of the army's artillery.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which monitors the war in Syria, said fierce clashes raged in both Kafr Nabuda and Jub al-Ahmar.
The Observatory's director, Rami Abdulrahmman, said the army and allied forces had taken part of Kafr Nabuda, and were fighting insurgents for full control of the town.
The UN diplomat trying to convene talks to end the war said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington.