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Sep 23, 3:39 PM EDT

Assad backs all efforts to fight terrorism


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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- President Bashar Assad said Tuesday he supports any international effort against terrorism, apparently trying to position his government on the side of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Assad's remarks came hours after the opening salvo in what the United States has warned will be a lengthy campaign to defeat the extremists who have seized control of a huge swath of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border. Damascus said the U.S. informed it beforehand that the strikes were coming.

One Syrian activist group reported that dozens of Islamic State fighters were killed in the pre-dawn strikes, but the numbers could not be independently confirmed. Several activists also reported at least 10 civilians killed.

Some Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad welcomed the American-led strikes, but others expressed frustration that the coalition was only targeting the Islamic State group and not the Syrian government.

One rebel faction that has received U.S.-made advanced weapons, Harakat Hazm, criticized the airstrikes, saying they violate Syria's sovereignty and undermine the anti-Assad revolution.

"The only party benefiting from the foreign intervention in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of a real strategy to bring it down," the group said in a statement posted on its Twitter feed.

The air campaign expanded to also hit al-Qaida's branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, which has fought against the Islamic State group. Washington considers it a terrorist group threatening the U.S., although Western-backed Syrian rebel groups frequently cooperate with Nusra Front fighters on the battlefield.

In a meeting Tuesday with an Iraqi envoy, Assad voiced his support for "any international anti-terrorism effort," according to the state news agency SANA. Assad did not specifically mention the coalition airstrikes, but said Syria is "decisively continuing in the war it has waged for years against extremist terrorism in all its forms."

He also stressed that all nations must commit to stop support for terrorism - an apparent reference to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are strong backers of Syrian rebels, whom the Syrian government calls terrorists.

In recent weeks, Syrian officials insisted that any international strikes on its soil must be coordinated with Damascus or else they would be considered an act of aggression and a breach of Syria's sovereignty. The United States has ruled out any coordination with Assad's government.

Still, Damascus appeared to want to show it was not being left out, vowing in a statement to fight extremist faction across Syria and pledging to coordinate "with countries that were harmed by the group, first and foremost Iraq."

Syria "stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called - whether Daesh or Nusra Front or something else," it said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State group.

Syria's Foreign Ministry said Washington told Damascus' U.N. envoy of the impending raids shortly before they began. It also said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry passed a message through Iraq's foreign minister to Syria's top diplomat to inform Damascus of the plans.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States informed Syria through the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. of its intent to take action, but did not request the Assad government's permission or coordinate with Damascus.

Syria's two key allies, Iran and Russia, condemned the strikes. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in New York that the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes are illegal because they were not approved by or coordinated with Syria's government.

Russia warned that the "unilateral" U.S. airstrikes are destabilizing the region and urged Washington to secure either Damascus' consent or U.N. Security Council support.

The Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group, which has dispatched fighters to Syria to bolster Assad's forces, also condemned the strikes.

"We are against an international coalition, whether it is against the regime ... or whether it is against Daesh," Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. "This is an opportunity, pretext, for America to dominate the region again."

The strikes, conducted by the U.S., Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, hit Islamic State training compounds and command centers, storage facilities and vehicles in the group's de facto capital, Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, and the surrounding province, U.S. officials said. They also struck territory controlled by the group in eastern Syria leading to the Iraqi border.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 70 Islamic State group fighters were killed and more than 300 wounded. Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory head, said about 22 airstrikes hit Raqqa province in addition to 30 in Deir el-Zour province.

Farther west, the strikes hit the village of Kfar Derian, a stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Around a dozen Nusra Front fighters were killed, as well as 10 civilians, according to two activists based in nearby Aleppo, Mohammed al-Dughaim and Abu Raed. One of the group's best snipers, known as Abu Youssef al-Turki, was among those killed.

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Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Zeina Karam in New York, Omar Akour in Amman, Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

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