SALMA, Syria (AP) — Pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad hang on nearly every building in the town of Salma, which government troops captured last week in one of their most significant advances since Russia intervened militarily on their side.
The Syrian government offensive has given Assad a stronger hand going into peace talks with the opposition that are planned for next week in Switzerland.
The Russian military on Friday took Moscow-based reporters to see the town in Latakia province, which had been out of government control for more than three years. Most of the buildings bore visible signs of fighting, with holes in concrete walls gaping open and windows blown out.
Government forces were able to capture the city "thanks to the support of the friendly Russian aviation," Latakia Governor Ibrahim Khder al-Saalem said. "Our army will now press its offensive further."
Since Russia launched its bombing campaign on Sept. 30, its warplanes have flown nearly 6,000 missions in support of the Syrian government troops. The airstrikes were ostensibly to target Islamic State militants and other extremists, but they also have helped Assad push back rebels on several fronts and capture dozens of villages in the north and west.
While Salma had been under rebel control since 2012, the government had continued to hold most of the rest of Latakia province, the heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect. Salma, a town of 10,000, sits on hills overlooking the Mediterranean coast, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.
The governor said the militants who had held Salma burned 200 hectares (500 acres) of apple orchards and 300 hectares (750 acres) of forest around the city before retreating toward Turkey. The border with Turkey, a key supporter of rebels in the area, is only 12 kilometers (seven miles) away.
On Friday, Syrian troops captured more areas from insurgents in Latakia province, including Kaluksi mountain and several other villages, according to the state-run SANA news agency.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes in the mountains of Latakia province, saying that the Syrian army and pro-government forces were advancing in the area.
The hills around Salma were littered with blown-up tanks and other vehicles. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian planes had helped destroy military vehicles and bunkers placed in strategic positions, helping prepare the way for the Syrian army to capture the city. He said the area had many ammunition depots, holding massive caches of explosives, which also were targeted by Russian warplanes.
Syria's five-year civil war has killed a quarter of a million people, displaced half the country and enabled the radical Islamic State group to seize a third of Syria's territory.
The talks planned for next week in Geneva are meant to start a political process to end the conflict, which started in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad's rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown. The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.
Before the fighting began, Salma was a popular spot in the summer with people seeking a respite from the heat. On Friday, life was returning to the city, with doctors standing outside the local clinic and police officers gathering at their station, which was adorned with a multitude of Assad portraits.