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U.S. says progress made with Russia during latest Syria airspace safety talks

Defence officials from the United States and Russia held a 90-minute video conference call on Saturday to discuss safe flight operations over Syria, according to the Pentagon.

Talks could be held as early as this weekend

This image provided by a Syrian activist-based media group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows smoke rising after a Russian airstrike hit buildings in the town of Latamna in the area of Hama in eastern Syria on Oct. 7. (Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in Hama via AP video)

Defence officials from the United States and Russia held a 90-minute video conference call on Saturday to discuss safe flight operations over Syria, according to the Pentagon.

"The discussions were professional and focused narrowly on the implementation of specific safety procedures," the U.S. Department of Defence said in a statement released on Saturday. "Progress was made during the talks, and the U.S. agreed to another discussion with Russia in the near future."

The former Cold War enemies have sought to avoid an accidental clash as they carry out rival bombing campaigns.

Russia's entry into Syria's civil war last week has complicated America's more than year-old campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), leading to at least one U.S. jet to take evasive action to avoid an incident.

The United States, which opposes Moscow's support for Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, has ruled out cooperation with Russia but has agreed to work on air safety procedures.

U.S. proposals were outlined during a secure video conference between the U.S. and Russian militaries on Oct. 1 and they included maintaining a safe distance between American and Russian aircraft and using common radio frequencies for distress calls.

The U.S. military warned it would not accept a Russian offer to hold more talks until it first received a formal response to those proposals, something the Pentagon said has now arrived.

Russia signals support for U.S. plan

Russia's deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov, was quoted by the Tass news agency on Tuesday as saying the Russian military agreed in principle with the proposals made by the United States.

Since Russia began airstrikes last week it has described all its targets as belonging to ISIS, although most have been in areas controlled by other rebel movements where ISIS has little or no presence.

Efforts to ensure pilot safety have gained urgency after the United States and NATO denounced Russia for violating Turkish airspace.

Ash Carter, U.S. Defence Secretary, has said Russian aircraft came within kilometres of an American drone and criticized Russia for launching cruise missile strikes without warning.

Heavy fighting in Syria

The talks come as Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes seized a village in central Syria on Saturday amid fierce clashes with rebels, part of a ground offensive launched earlier this week.

That offensive marked the first major air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russian officials say the airstrikes are targeting mainly ISIS militants, but most strikes are hitting areas where the extremist group is not present.

The fighting is concentrated in Hama and the northern Idlib provinces, where a consortium of mainstream rebels as well as al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are operating.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said government troops seized control of Atshan on Friday amid intense Russian airstrikes in the region. It said troops also seized the nearby Um Hartein village.

Syrian troops have faced stiff resistance from the rebels, who have used advanced U.S.-made TOW missiles to attack Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles.

The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that Russian planes flew 64 sorties and targeted 54 sites in the past 24 hours, without elaborating. Among the sites attacked, it said, were command outposts in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Russia, a key ally of Assad, has insisted its airstrikes are targeting ISIS and other terrorists. But U.S. officials said this week that Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against U.S.-funded groups and other moderate opposition groups in a concerted effort to weaken them.

Heavy fighting was also taking place in the al-Ghab plain in Hama province — a natural barrier between areas controlled by Sunni Muslims and the Alawite sect to which Assad and many of his loyalists belong.

Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people in the past four years, has displaced half the country's pre-war population of 23 million people. A U.S.-led coalition has been striking ISIS targets in Syria for over a year.

with files from The Associated Press

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