BEIRUT (AP) — Scores of residents of the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh took advantage Friday of a lull in fighting between Kurdish forces and Syrian government troops to flee to safer areas nearby, after fighting intensified the previous day with government warplanes bombing Kurdish-controlled positions in the city for the first time, Kurdish officials and activists said.
Also Friday, the Russian military said two of its ships launched cruise missiles at militant targets in Syria from the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The development came after Russia this week began using Iranian territory to launch airstrikes in Syria, with Moscow's bombers flying out of the Islamic Republic for three straight days to hit targets in the war-ravaged country.
The missiles add an extra dimension to the aerial campaign Russia has conducted since September in support of President Bashar Assad's military.
Russia's Defense Ministry said that the Serpukhov and the Zeleny Dol corvettes launched three long-range Kalibr cruise missiles on Friday at the al-Qaida-linked militant group of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. The ministry said that the missiles destroyed a command facility and a militant camp near Daret Azzeh along with a mine-making facility and a weapons facility in the province of Aleppo.
Russian warships have in the past launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria from both the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, a show of the navy's long-range precision strike capability. Cruise missiles launched from Russian navy ships in the Caspian in October and November struck targets in Syria while in December, a Russian submarine also launched cruise missiles at Syrian militants.
In Hassakeh, after dozens of townspeople fled, clashes broke out anew later on Friday, a Kurdish official said.
Nasser Haj Mansour of the predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces said Syrian government warplanes and helicopters launched more attacks on areas controlled by Kurdish fighters on Friday.
Later in the evening, the Syrian army said the main Kurdish militia had surrounded Hassakeh and bombarded it with artillery and tanks, killing a number of soldiers and civilians and forcing troops to retaliate.
"The army command is determined to repel all these attacks," said an army statement, carried by the state news agency SANA.
The fighting between the Kurdish troops and government forces could potentially open a new front in the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year.
The area around Hassakeh had witnessed battles between the two sides in the past but this week's violence has been among the worst since Kurdish fighters took control of wide, predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria in 2012.
The main Kurdish force in Syria known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, has been the main U.S.-backed force in Syria and the most effective force in fighting the Islamic State group.
Last week, the Syria Democratic Forces, a coalition led by the YPG, captured the former IS stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria under the cover airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that tracks the conflict, said the fighting first began Wednesday. So far, 16 people, including six women and children, have been killed on the Kurdish side. Five pro-government gunmen of the National Defense Force were killed as well, the Observatory said.
The Observatory said that Syrian warplanes struck areas under control of Kurdish fighters in Hassakeh, adding that there was no immediate word on casualties.
Mansour told The Associated Press on Friday that the YPG fighters captured several areas, including the wheat silos and the economics college, and that the Kurdish troops were advancing in the central neighborhoods of Ghweiran and Nashwa.
"We are fighting mercenaries," he said, referring to pro-government gunmen fighting alongside Assad's forces.
Recently, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif travelled to Turkey for talks with Turkish officials while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Tehran on Thursday. Both countries pledged greater cooperation on resolving the Syria crisis, despite the fact they support opposing sides in the war - Iran is a staunch Assad ally while Ankara backs Syria's rebels and Asad's rivals.
However, Turkey and Iran have large Kurdish communities and both appear to be concerned about Syria's Kurds gaining more areas under their control on the border with Turkey. Ankara also considers the YPG a terrorist organization because of its links to Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Jwan Mohammed, a former Kurdish official, said there was intense fighting overnight. A relative calm on Friday morning prompted scores to flee, mostly to nearby towns of Qamishli and Amouda. Speaking from Qamishli, he said that there were calls through mosques loudspeakers for the evacuation of civilians stuck in the areas of fighting.
The Observatory also reported residents were fleeing the city before clashes picked up again in the afternoon.
YPG spokesman Redur Khalil denounced Thursday's government air raids on Hassakeh as an act of "suicide," adding that Assad's forces would be held accountable for these "brutal, blatant attacks against our people."
The United Nations reported a breakthrough, saying the Syrian Arab Red Crescent evacuated up to 39 people for medical treatment from two Syrian towns under siege. The office of the U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said several children were among those evacuated Friday from the towns of Foua and Madaya.
Rebel-held Madaya near Damascus is besieged by government forces and their allies while government-held Foua in the north is besieged by rebels. De Mistura called the evacuations, which are not common from besieged areas in Syria, a "positive step."
He regretted that aid convoys have been blocked to a number of places, including Madaya and Foua, for over 110 days amid increased fighting.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.