Dozens of combatants reported dead during clashes and air strikes in Syria's Hama
Dozens of combatants, including 26 pro-government fighters, were killed on Saturday in clashes and air strikes that erupted in northwestern Syria, a UK-based activist group has said.
The latest escalation in fighting came as Russian-backed government forces tried to retake two villages seized by militant groups earlier this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Since this morning, the Syrian regime and allied fighters have launched five failed attempts to regain control of Jibine and Tal Maleh in northwestern Hama province," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
Syrian government forces flanked by Russian air strikes killed nine militants and rebel fighters, the Observatory said.
Ongoing clashes in the north of Hama province left 26 pro-regime forces dead, including eight who were killed in a mine explosion, it added.
Turkey rejects Russian 'excuse'
The Idlib region of some three million people was supposed to have been protected by a buffer zone deal that Russia and Turkey signed in September, in a bid to protect it from a massive regime offensive expected at the time.
But it was never fully implemented, as militants refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarised zone.
In January, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, extended its administrative control over the region, which includes most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.
The Syrian government and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing more than 360 civilians, according to the Observatory.
Turkey said on Friday that it did not accept Russia's "excuse" that it had no ability to stop the Syrian regime's continued bombardments in the last rebel bastion of Idlib.
"In Syria, who are the regime's guarantors? Russia and Iran," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state news agency Anadolu in a televised interview.
"Thus we do not accept the excuse that 'We cannot make the regime listen to us'," he said.
Cavusoglu's comments came as Turkey disagreed with Russia earlier this week after Moscow said a new ceasefire had been secured in the province following weeks of regime bombardments. The claim was denied by Ankara.
Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions more since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
Russia launched a military intervention in support of the regime in 2015, helping its forces reclaim large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants.