Islamic State makes gains in Syria's central province

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BEIRUT (AP) — The Islamic State group on Wednesday seized more territory in Syria's central province of Homs amid clashes with government forces that left dozens dead and wounded on both sides, activists said.

Also Wednesday, Syrian troops and members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group captured Mousa Hill, the highest peak in the rugged mountainous Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border. The hill is part of an area where members of al-Qaida's branch in Syria — the Nusra Front — suffered defeats over the past days.

The Homs fighting killed at least 28 government troops and about 20 Islamic State group militants, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said hundreds were wounded.

The Islamic State has a presence in the eastern countryside of Homs and has lately been pushing west. Twitter accounts affiliated with IS say it reported advances northwest of the city of Palmyra.

A Homs-based activist, Bebars al-Talawy, said IS seized a large government ammunition warehouse outside Palmyra and was bombing a nearby government-controlled airport. Al-Talawy said the extremists took advantage of government redeployment Tuesday to Idlib province, where troops are fighting to regain territory seized by rebels.

Syria's state news agency SANA said troops struck IS positions near Palmyra, killing many militants.

In Qalamoun, the capture of Moussa Hill — at an altitude of 2,570 meters (8,431 feet) — gives a boost to Syrian government force and their Hezbollah allies, putting a wide area in the region under their fire.

Syrian state TV said the hill is now under the control of troops and their allies, while Hezbollah's Al-Manar station said fighters are destroying "the fortifications" that were erected by the militants. Al-Manar later showed footage of Hezbollah forces storming the hill under the cover of Syrian tank fire.

The capture of the hill comes after a string of defeats for government forces in recent weeks in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern province of Daraa.

Syria's crisis has killed more than 220,000 people since 2011.

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