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The Latest: Al-Qaida-linked group denies leader was wounded

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest developments on the war in Syria (all times local):

10:15 p.m.

An al-Qaida-linked group in Syria is denying Russia's claim that its airstrikes this week critically wounded the insurgent group's leader.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Levant Liberation Committee says its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, is in excellent health and is carrying on with his tasks normally. The statement was published on the group's Telegram channel.

Russia said Wednesday it carried out airstrikes in Syria that critically wounded al-Golani and killed 12 other militant commanders.

Russia has been waging an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces since 2015, helping them to make major advances against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida-linked insurgents and mainstream rebels.

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6 p.m.

The Russian military is accusing the U.S. of helping the Islamic State group launch a series of recent attacks against Syrian troops.

The Russian accusations likely reflect rising tensions as U.S.-backed Syrian forces and the Russian-backed Syrian army — both of which are battling IS — race for control of oil and gas-rich areas of eastern Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Wednesday that IS launched a series of attacks last week from the area around Tanf near Syria's border with Jordan, where U.S. military advisers are based.

He said the attacks near Al-Qaryatayn in the Homs province and a key highway linking Palmyra and Deir el-Zour wouldn't have been possible without U.S. intelligence.

Konashenkov said that "a quick liberation of the Euphrates River's valley from the IS apparently runs contrary to the U.S. plans." He added that "support and flirting with terrorists by the U.S. colleagues is the main obstacle preventing the complete destruction of the IS in Syria."

The U.S. has carried out thousands of airstrikes against IS since 2014 and has helped Iraqi and Syrian forces drive the extremists from large areas of both countries.

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4 p.m.

Syrian activists say government forces are advancing on one of the last major strongholds of the Islamic State group and have launched an intense wave of shelling and airstrikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syrian troops and allied militiamen have advanced to about 10 kilometers (six miles) north of Mayadeen. The activist-operated Deir Ezzor24 says dozens of rockets and barrel bombs fell on Mayadeen and surrounding villages on Wednesday.

Mayadeen has become the main hub for Islamic State militants, including the group's leaders, as its former strongholds in Raqqa, Deir el-Zour and Mosul have come under attack.

U.S-backed Syrian forces and the Russia-backed Syrian military are in a race for control of territory in eastern Syria.

The activists say tens of thousands of civilians have fled Mayadeen amid the intense attack.

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1:10 p.m.

The Kremlin says it will look into reports about two Russians allegedly captured in Syria by the Islamic State group.

A paramilitary Russian group on Tuesday identified one of the two men shown in an IS video as its member. A Cossack unit called the Great Don Army said it had no information how the man, identified as Roman Zabolotny, ended up in Syria.

Earlier, Russia's Defense Ministry denied there were any Russian servicemen taken in Syria.

Russian officials have denied reports that the Kremlin dispatched private security firms to fight alongside Syrian government troops but have acknowledged that there might be Russian nationals fighting on their own initiative in Syria.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters on Wednesday that the Kremlin is treating the reports from the Cossack unit's with caution but will check them out.

Peskov dismissed the unit's statement as unofficial but said "Moscow is concerned about those individuals in case they are actually Russian citizens" and would look into the reports.

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12:40 p.m.

A paramilitary Russian group says it has identified one of the men reportedly captured in Syria by the Islamic State group as its member.

The development comes after IS released a video on Tuesday purporting to show two Russian soldiers the extremists claim to have captured in fighting in eastern Syria. Russia's Defense Ministry insisted no Russian servicemen have been taken in Syria.

It wasn't possible to verify the authenticity of the video or confirm the identities of the individuals shown in it.

A Cossack unit called the Great Don Army issued a statement late on Tuesday, saying one of the two men has been identified as a local Cossack. The unit told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday that it had no information how the man, Roman Zabolotny, ended up in Syria.

The Cossacks, members of a semi-military group which traditionally guarded the far-flung outposts of the Russian empire, in recent years have been seen attacking opposition gatherings in Russia.

They played a prominent role in a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Cossack commanders publicly admitted crossing the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine to help local separatists. Entire towns close to the Russian border were under Cossack control at some point during the conflict. The Russian government has denied that it was backing the Cossacks.

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10:15 a.m.

Russia's military says it has carried out airstrikes in Syria that critically wounded the leader of an al-Qaida-linked group and killed 12 other militant commanders.

Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said in a statement on Wednesday that the airstrikes wounded Abu Mohammed al-Golani, leader of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.

He says the strikes took place on Tuesday at an undisclosed location in Syria.

Konashenkov says 50 other militants who were securing the gathering were also killed.

There was no immediate comment from the militant group.

Moscow has blamed the al-Qaida-linked group for attacking Russian military police in Syria's western Hama province last week.

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