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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian insurgents made new advances to capture villages north of Hama on Thursday, rebels and a war monitor said, pressing a month-long offensive in an area of strategic importance to the government as it tries to seize insurgent-held Aleppo.
The advance may distract from the offensive by the Syrian army and its allies, Shi'ite militias and Russia's air force, on rebel-held eastern Aleppo following a massive bombardment since a ceasefire collapsed last week.
A Syrian military source said on Thursday that the air force had conducted strikes in a string of villages north of Hama that rebels have seized in recent weeks, adding that it had destroyed tanks and armoured vehicles and killed "dozens of terrorists".
The rebels' Hama offensive began several weeks ago and has steadily gained ground in the area to the north of the city, taking a series of villages and towns previously held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
"The situation is really excellent," said Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, a rebel commander in a Jaish al-Fatah faction.
"It puts big pressure on the regime," he added, saying it had forced it to pull forces from Aleppo and move them to the Hama front.
On Thursday, rebels gained control over the villages of Khafsin and Karah, an insurgent and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor said.
Al-Hamawi said the captured villages are inhabited by members of the Alawite sect, a Shi'ite offshoot to which Assad also belongs and is regarded as heretical by some Sunni Islamist.
The advance brings them close to the town of Taiabat al-Ism, whose capture would allow them to close a government-held salient into the areas the insurgents have secured.
Al-Hamawi said the insurgents' Hama campaign was aimed at opening a path to the city, at relieving pressure on besieged rebel-held areas further south and at cutting the only road that links Aleppo to the rest of government-held western Syria.
Reporting by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams