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Syrian government forces are poised to advance into the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa province as allied Russian jets continue air strikes on rebel-held towns north of Aleppo, denying they have hit civilians.
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Syrians sceptical about ceasefire, aid deal
WARNING: Disturbing images. Civilians and members of Islamist fighter groups in Syria have expressed scepticism over major powers' agreement on a "cessation of hostilities".
An advance into Raqqa would re-establish a Syrian government foothold in the province for the first time since 2014 and may be aimed at pre-empting any move by Saudi Arabia to send ground forces to fight Islamic State militants in Syria.
Russia is pressing ahead with its four-month-old air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad ahead of "a cessation of hostilities" agreed by major powers on Friday. The agreement is due to come into effect in a week.
Russia has denied international accusations, led by France and the US, that it has bombed civilians in Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of hitting legitimate opposition groups and civilians with its bombing campaign in Syria and said Moscow must change its targets to respect the deal clinched on Friday.
"To date, the vast majority of Russia's attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups. To adhere to the agreement it made, Russia's targeting must change," Kerry told a security conference in Munich on Saturday.
He accused Russia of dropping so-called "dumb bombs" in Syria that do not have a precise target, saying this has led to the killing of civilians.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also called on Russia to stop bombing civilians in Syria, saying it was crucial for achieving peace in the country.
"France respects Russia and its interests ... But we know that to find the path to peace again, the Russian bombing of civilians has to stop," Valls told the conference.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry denied targeting civilians, saying it was simply not true.
"There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this," Medvedev told the conference.
"Russia is not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria. We are simply trying to protect our national interests," he said, adding that Moscow wanted to prevent Islamist militants getting to Russia.
The Syrian army recaptured a village that overlooks major rebel-held towns around Aleppo, state television reported on Saturday, part of a government campaign to encircle and recaptured insurgent areas of the major northern city.
It said the army entered the village of al-Tamura, located on high ground above the towns of Anadan, Hayan and Haritan, which have been heavily bombed in recent days and become a front line in the war.
The army's advances in the area, backed by allied Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, have cut the main rebel supply route from Turkey into opposition-held parts of Aleppo.
If its forces retake Aleppo and seal the Turkish border, Damascus would deal a crushing blow to the insurgents who were on the march until Russia intervened last September, shoring up Assad's rule and paving the way to the current advances.
The cessation of hostilities agreement falls short of a formal ceasefire, since it was not signed by the warring parties - the government and rebels seeking to topple Assad in the five-year-long war that has killed 250,000 people.
Russia has said it will keep bombing Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which in many areas of western Syria fights government forces in close proximity to insurgents deemed moderates by Western states.
Helped by Russian air power, the Syrian army and its allies have been pursuing offensives on crucial front lines of western Syria, while also attacking Islamic State further east.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops were just a few kilometres from the provincial borders of Raqqa after making a rapid advance eastwards along a desert highway in the last few days from Ithriya. The Syrian army could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Syrian government has not had a major foothold in Raqqa province since Islamic State insurgents captured Tabqa air base in 2014. "They are on the provincial borders of Raqqa," said Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman.
The ultra-hardline Islamic State, whose main aim is to expand its "caliphate" rather than toppling Assad and reforming Syria, is being targeted in separate campaigns by a US-led alliance and the Syrian government with Russian air support.
US-allied Kurdish forces are also fighting Islamic State in Raqqa. Last year, they advanced into Raqqa province from the north-east, capturing an Islamic State-held town at the border with Turkey.
Gulf states that want Assad gone from power have said they would be willing to send in troops as part of any US-led ground attack against Islamic State. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday he expected Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send commandos to help recapture Raqqa.
In what may have been a response to those remarks, Medvedev said on Saturday there was no need to scare anyone with a ground operation in Syria.
The Syrian government has said that any foreign forces in the country without its consent will be fought.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview published on Saturday that Russia's military interventions will not help Assad stay in power. "There will be no Bashar al-Assad in the future," he told a German newspaper.
The complex, multi-sided civil war in Syria, raging since 2011, has drawn in most regional and global powers, producing the world's worst humanitarian emergency and attracting jihadist recruits from around the world.
A US State Department spokesman said on Friday Assad was "deluded" if he thought there is a military solution to the war.
Two Syrian rebel commanders said on Friday insurgents had been sent "excellent quantities" of Grad rockets with a range of 20 kilometres by foreign backers in recent days to help confront the Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo.
Foreign opponents of Assad including Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been supplying vetted rebel groups with weapons via a Turkey-based operations centre.
Some of these groups have received military training overseen by the CIA. The vetted groups have been a regular target of the Russian air strikes.
Russian warplanes carried out at least 12 raids on rebel-held towns north of Aleppo overnight on Friday, the Observatory said.