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Twenty killed in Syrian air raid

Syrian government warplanes bombed a predominantly Sunni village and killed at least 20 people, opposition activists said, as government forces pushed to retake territory in the western heartland of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect.

The rebel capture last week of 11 villages in the regime stronghold of Latakia province was a symbolic blow to Assad, whose troops have otherwise been making gains in central Syria and around the capital Damascus.

Assad's forces are now trying to retake those villages, predominantly populated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.

The mountainous region near the Mediterranean Sea is also home to villages populated by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the rebel ranks. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets struck one Sunni village, Salma, late on Friday, and that at least half of the dead were fighters.

The group reported heavy clashes between troops and rebels in the surrounding Jabal al-Akrad mountains. It had no reports of casualties in the fighting.

The state media said that government troops recaptured three of the 11 villages. Activists confirmed the fall of one village but said fighting was continuing in the other two.

Most of Latakia province has been under tight government control and comparatively peaceful during the conflict, now in its third year. But earlier this week rebels including foreign fighters swept through a string of villages, sending civilians fleeing their homes. At least 60 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the rebel offensive, activists said. They say another 400 civilians, mostly Alawites, are missing and are presumed to be in rebel custody in the area.

Assad's troops have recently advanced near the border with Lebanon and in the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold. They have also fought pockets of resistance around the capital, where they ambushed a large group of rebels on Wednesday, killing more than 60 fighters.

Rebels, however, have made advances in the past week in the north, where they succeeded in taking over an air base after months of fighting.

Syrian's conflict started in March 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule. It has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the last year. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

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