DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Clashes intensified Thursday between Syrian troops and insurgents in central and northwestern Syria, part of what a top general called a “wide-ranging” offensive aided by Russian airstrikes and apparently aimed at clearing positions near government strongholds on the coast.

U.S. defense officials said as many as four of the 26 long-range cruise missiles that Russia said Wednesday it fired at Syria landed instead in Iran, but it was unclear if they caused any significant damage. Russia said all of its missiles fired from warships hit their targets.

Russia’s involvement in Syria, which began with airstrikes Sept. 30 and escalated Wednesday with cruise missiles, “raises serious concerns,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after a meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers in Brussels.

Russia says its air campaign in Syria is aimed against militants of the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked groups, but the West accuses it of intervening to support President Bashar against even moderate rebels in the civil war.

The Syrian government’s multipronged offensive began Wednesday, and state-run media said it seized several villages in central Syria, with fighting continuing Thursday. The government media and activists reported heavy fighting in Sahl al-Ghab, a vital plain bordering Assad’s stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean.

The plain also lies between Hama and Idlib, the northwestern provinces seized from government troops in September. Insurgents have been advancing there since summer, threatening the coastal region where Assad’s family and the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are concentrated.

The Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh — has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo provinces, while Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, has a strong presence in Idlib.

Gen. Ali Ayoub, the Syrian army’s chief of staff, said Russia’s airstrikes had weakened the Islamic State fighters and other insurgents so that his troops could keep up the initiative.

“Today, the Syrian Arab armed forces began a wide-ranging attack with the aim of eliminating the terrorist groups and liberating the areas and towns that suffered from their scourge and crimes,” Ayoub said in rare televised remarks. The government uses the term “terrorists” to refer to all armed opposition groups in Syria.

Russia said its warplanes flew 22 sorties and carried out 11 airstrikes on IS training facilities in Hama and Raqqa provinces.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said its aircraft destroyed firing positions in rural Hama, where fighting has raged, and struck militants’ underground facilities in rural Latakia with concrete-piercing bombs.

Syrian TV showed government troops loading and firing artillery as helicopters flew over rural Hama and Idlib. It also showed tanks and airstrikes. The state run SANA news agency said joint Syrian-Russian airstrikes hit 27 targets belonging to Nusra Front.

Heavy fighting was concentrated in the rural parts of Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces — areas of operation for an array of insurgent groups that includes the Nusra Front. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army also has a presence in the area, while the Islamic State has a limited presence in western Hama, where activists reported no fighting or airstrikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists said a military helicopter was downed in Kfar Nabouda, in northern Hama. Local media said the helicopter belonged to the Syrian government. The Observatory said Russian jets bombed areas near the site.

The ultraconservative militant group Ahar al-Sham, part of the coalition known as the Army of Conquest that controls Idlib, posted video showing it launching Grad rockets at government troops. The troops advanced on a village previously controlled by the rebels.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told state TV the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for dozens of Western-backed rebel groups, is no different from other militants.

“There is no difference between Nusra Front, Daesh and the Free Syrian Army — if it still exists,” he said. “They started (the armed opposition) and taught Daesh and Nusra all these crimes committed against Syria now.”

The Observatory, which has a network of activists across Syria, said the Russian airstrikes in Idlib killed at least seven civilians Wednesday.

The Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian rights group, said at least 43 civilians, including nine children and seven women, were killed Sept. 30, the first day of Russia’s airstrikes, in central Homs province. The group, relying on witnesses and video, said the strikes hit predominantly civilian areas in three villages and towns, including homes and a bread distribution center.

The Russians maintain no civilians were killed.

The group said it documented the use of at least two vacuum bombs — thermobaric weapons “which are entirely indiscriminate in nature and impossible to evade, even when taking shelter.” The group alleged the attacks constituted a “grave violation of international humanitarian law and, as a result, a war crime.”

Syria’s conflict, which began as an uprising against Assad in March 2011 but became a full-blown civil war after a fierce government crackdown, has killed 250,000 people, according to U.N. figures.

Russia said Wednesday it launched 26 cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea that hit targets in the Syrian provinces in the north and northwest, taking flight paths over Iran and Iraq.

As many as four landed instead in Iran, according to three U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. One of the officials said the number of missiles that went off course was four.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Thursday that “all rockets fired from ships found their targets.”

Iranian government officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but the semi-official Fars news agency said Western news reports of missiles going astray amounted to U.S. “psychological warfare” against Russia’s intervention in Syria. A report Wednesday by Fars quoted Iraj Saghafi, acting governor of Takab in northwestern Iran, as saying an explosion heard in the region was “possibly related to work in a nearby rock quarry.”

Russia’s intervention has alarmed the West and its NATO allies, particularly Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria and has been a leading backer of the Syrian rebels.

On Thursday, the alliance signaled its readiness to defend Turkey if needed from any threats from Moscow. Russian jets twice violated Turkish airspace over the weekend.

“NATO is able and ready to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threat,” Stoltenberg said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Moscow has insisted it is striking facilities of the Islamic State militant group, but that so far this hasn’t matched up with the targets Russia is blasting from the air.

“They have initiated a joint ground offensive with the Syrian regime, shattering the facade that they’re there to fight ISIL,” Carter said.

Russia’s support for Assad “will have consequences for Russia itself,” he said, adding: “I also expect that in coming days the Russians will begin to suffer casualties in Syria.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Moscow’s military action in Syria endangered trade ties with his country, saying Ankara could look elsewhere for gas supplies and cancel the construction of its first nuclear power plant, which is being built by Russia. Russia supplies 60 percent of Turkey’s gas needs.

President Vladimir Putin was informed of Erdogan’s remarks but hoped they would not affect relations between the two countries, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“We sincerely hope that these relations will continue to expand according to the plans mapped out by Putin and Erdogan because this cooperation is genuinely mutually beneficial and is in the interests of both our countries,” Peskov said.


El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

VIENNA (AP) — Just a few days after more than 100,000 people turned out in Vienna to support refugees, an anti-refugee party is poised to land a huge coup — a win at the polls that could see them take control of the Austrian capital.

More than any other topic, Austria’s stance toward refugees is determining Sunday’s race for Vienna’s city hall, pitting voters who welcome those fleeing into Europe against others who fear that a surge of refugees threatens their own well-being.

Only a fraction of the nearly 200,000 people who crossed into this country last month stayed, with most traveling on to Germany. Still, the Interior Ministry counted over 46,000 requests for refugee status by the end of August, compared with around 28,000 for all of 2014.

Organizers of Saturday’s demonstration say the turnout shows pro-immigrant sentiment in Vienna.

But the asylum numbers and the nightly newscasts showing masses of people entering Austria have increased support for the Freedom Party, which believes that immigration not only threatens traditional Austrian values but also cuts into an already shrinking job market.

In a video produced by its youth organization, a voiceover accompanying rapidly changing images of shrouded women asks: “Did you know that you will become a stranger in your own country? Did you know that you soon could become jobless?”

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has toned down his anti-immigrant rhetoric ahead of the Vienna vote in an attempt to win over critics. But he returned to the theme Thursday, as he addressed about 2,000 boisterous supporters braving light rain in front of Vienna’s iconic St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Warning that attacks by Islamic radicals will increase through the migrant influx, he asked: “Would you open your windows and doors so that strangers can walk into your home?”

Others are even blunter. After an airline refused to fly an Afghan asylum-seeker out of the country because she put up a spirited fight, Freedom Party legislator Dagmar Belakowitsch-Jenewein suggested using military transport planes “where they can scream as loud as they want.”

Polls say the Socialists, who dominate the city’s two-party coalition, are still in front with more than a third of the vote, but the Freedom Party is gaining support and is close behind.

The Freedom Party already has made huge gains in several provincial elections this year, at the expense of the Socialists and the centrist People’s Party, but it has not won outright. Those establishment parties have governed on all levels in Austria with few exceptions since the end of World War II.

Runoff mayoral elections also are being held Sunday in 44 communities in Upper Austria province. But “Red Vienna” is a special prize.

The city has been governed for 60 years by the Socialists, alone or as the dominant coalition partner. Beyond the cachet of controlling the capital as mayor, that post is a major stepping stone toward Strache’s ultimate goal of becoming Austria’s chancellor.

His party has always drawn support from right-of-center voters, Euroskeptics, anti-Semites and xenophobes. More recently, with joblessness growing, it has threatened to usurp the Socialists as the nation’s blue-collar party.

This time, the Freedom Party is reaching out to all voters in hopes its anti-immigrant message will resonate with those fear the future.

“The majority of Austrians are faced with a real or imagined economic or social downturn,” said political analyst Andreas Filtzmaier. “This is makes it easy for the Freedom Party to say, ‘Things will only get worse because of mass immigration.'”

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — They are there every football game, those men in caps and vests moving in unison on the sideline following every play. The sideline crew “chain gang” plays a vital role marking the line of scrimmage and distance for a first down and keeping track of the downs.

They happily exist in the background, unless they mess up.

Chain gangs found unwanted spotlight in two major-college games last week. In the Big Ten, Illinois was forced to turn over the ball to Nebraska after a third down because the sideline crew and officials thought it was fourth down. Even a video review failed to correct the mistake. In the Big 12, the incorrect placement of the first-down marker after a penalty resulted in Oklahoma State being wrongly awarded a first down.

Illinois got the ball right back on an interception and ended up winning 14-13 at home. Kansas State, however, was adversely affected because the phantom first down kept alive a touchdown drive in Oklahoma State’s 36-34 win in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Big Ten and Big 12 both issued statements acknowledging the errors.

Both incidents occurred on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most notorious chain-gang gaffe of all time, the “Fifth Down Game” in Columbia, Missouri. Colorado beat Missouri on a fifth-down play as time ran out and went on to win a share of the national championship.

Schools are responsible for hiring the sideline crew for their home games. At Nebraska, for example, the chain gang is made up of current or former high school football officials. Training is on the job, and each man earns about $50 a game.

“It’s not rocket science to stand there and hold a pole,” said Greg Maschman, who heads the crew at Nebraska home games, “but we do take it pretty seriously.”

Illinois coach Bill Cubit said the jobs of sideline crews and on-field officials have become more difficult because of the increasing speed of the game. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder offered no solution for the problem he encountered last Saturday but said, “Maybe we need a better system than what we have. I’d like to labor under the assumption that those things will be taken care of by other people.”

College crews have five members positioned on the sideline opposite the press box, and they’re under the supervision of the linesman.

There are two “rod men,” one who holds the pole marking the spot where the current set of downs began and the other who holds the pole marking the line to gain for a first down. The “box man” sets a pole at the current line of scrimmage, and he also flips the down number located in the box at the top of his pole. The “clip man” attaches a clip to a link in the chain at the nearest 5-yard line, ensuring accuracy if the chains are taken onto the field to measure for a first down. The fifth man records penalties.

A two-man auxiliary crew works the opposite sideline so players, coaches and officials on that side can see the distance needed for a first down.

The linesman’s first instruction to the chain gang members is to stay safe, meaning to drop their poles and flee if a play is coming their way.

As a box man, Maschman checks and re-checks to make sure he and the linesman agree on the down. Maschman wears a down indicator on his hand, an elastic band that slips over one, two, three or four fingers depending on the down. Also, after each play Maschman writes the down and yard-line on a strip of athletic tape he sticks on the back of the box at the top of his pole.

“I try to concentrate and do my job, and I probably take it more serious than I would need to,” he said. “I say that, and then something that happens at Illinois happens, and you’re damn glad you do take it seriously so it never happens to us.”


David Mercer and Luke Meredith contributed.


This version corrects to Illinois winning at home in 4th paragraph.

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Islamic State militants have shot and killed three Assyrians from among nearly 200 members of the Syrian Christian minority abducted in February.

The Assyrian Human Rights Network said in a statement on Facebook Thursday that the three were killed last month on the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

A video circulated by IS supporters on Wednesday showed militants shooting three men in orange jumpsuits in the back of their heads. Three other captives then introduce themselves, with one asking that “appropriate measures” be taken for their release.

IS kidnapped nearly 200 Assyrians in February. At least 45 have been released through negotiations.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Voters are beginning to learn about Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio.

What they’re not learning, however, is who is paying to promote his candidacy.

The Florida senator is benefiting in unprecedented ways from a nonprofit group funded by anonymous donors. While other presidential candidates also have ties to secret-money groups, the Rubio arrangement is the boldest.

Every pro-Rubio television commercial so far in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina has been paid for not by his campaign or even by a super PAC that identifies its donors, but instead by a nonprofit called Conservative Solutions Project. It’s also sending Rubio-boosting mail to voters in those same states.

Rubio is legally prohibited from directing the group’s spending, and he has said he has nothing to do with it. But there’s little doubt that Conservative Solutions Project is picking up the tab for critical expenses that the campaign itself might struggle to afford.

Although Rubio is rising in national polls, his fundraising has so far been dwarfed that of by several rivals. For one, Jeb Bush and his super PAC had amassed $114 million — more than quadruple what Rubio and his super PAC collected — by the end of June.

Ahead of what is expected to be a disappointing fundraising report next week, Rubio’s aides have stressed that their thriftiness gives them a competitive advantage over campaigns with more money.

Left unsaid is that a secret-money group is giving him at least an $8 million assist, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media’s CMAG.

The candidate has presented himself as being opposed to such unaccountable money.

“I have always supported disclosure,” Rubio said at a New Hampshire campaign stop last month, in response to a question about money in politics. “And I think that as long as people know who is giving you money, and why it is, people can make judgments on why you are doing what you are doing.”

Conservative Solutions Project does not disclose its donors.

The group is spending more than $3 million on a commercial that shows Rubio, 44, speaking at the Iowa State Fair, according to CMAG information about advertising placements on broadcast, cable and satellite television.

“New ideas for a new age,” a narrator says before ticking through a list of Rubio priorities: “Throw out the tax code, overhaul higher education, repeal and replace Obamacare.”

That follows a $3 million summertime ad campaign by the same group that promoted Rubio’s strong opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Conservative Solutions Project also has reserved nearly $2 million in additional satellite TV time through Feb. 16, according to the advertising tracker.

Although numerous candidates may ultimately benefit from allied nonprofits, so far it appears that only the entities helping Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are advertising in the presidential race. America Next has spent about $380,000 boosting Jindal on TV, CMAG said. Bush also has a secret-money group in his corner, but it hasn’t yet directly communicated with voters.

Nonprofits are the edgier cousins of super PACs. Both can accept unlimited amounts of money from wealthy donors, corporations and unions, but only nonprofits can keep those names a secret.

In exchange for that privilege, nonprofits are barred from making political activity their primary purpose. But gray area abounds. The two regulating agencies, the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, have been less than aggressive in pursuing potential violators.

“Congress, the Supreme Court and the public have all recognized that voters have a right to know who is spending money to try to influence them on Election Day,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “Transparency is how we hold politicians accountable and make sure they’re not in the pocket of their benefactors.”

That’s in line with public opinion: Seventy-five percent of voters, an equal share of Democrats and Republicans, said contributors to unaffiliated groups should be disclosed, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll in June.

The Conservative Solutions Project declined to say who gave it the $16 million it claims to have. Its donors will never be named in the IRS paperwork it is required to submit. And because of the filing schedule the group set for itself, the public will have to wait until mid-2017, well after the general election, to learn even basic information about its finances during the primary nomination fight.

Although it shares a name and key personnel with the Rubio-focused super PAC, Conservative Solutions PAC, its mutual spokesman, Jeff Sadosky, said the two are “very separate and distinct groups.”

He said the nonprofit’s work goes well beyond Rubio’s presidential ambitions, pointing to a detailed study it did last year of voter behavior, available to anyone online. Additionally, Sadosky said, Conservative Solutions Project highlights on its website the work of other conservative leaders.

But its bent toward Rubio is apparent even there: Visitors to the site are immediately routed to a video of the Florida senator speaking, the same footage on television in early primary states.


Follow Julie Bykowicz on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bykowicz

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the front-runner in the race to become the next speaker, but he faces two Republican opponents who are trying to draw some of his support.

Four-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and three-term Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida both say they can bring a needed fresh perspective to GOP leadership, unlike McCarthy, who has served as majority leader under Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Boehner is resigning at the end of the month and has endorsed McCarthy in Thursday’s race in the GOP caucus to pick a nominee. After the caucus picks its candidate, the full House will elect a speaker Oct. 29.


Chaffetz is the brash 48-year-old chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he has launched high-profile investigations of the Secret Service, Planned Parenthood and other issues.

He said he had not planned to run for speaker but was recruited by Republicans he wouldn’t name. He said his colleagues are looking for a fresh face who can bring the caucus together rather than a continuation of existing leadership.

“If we don’t inject new blood into the leadership team, our constituents are going to be irate at best,” Chaffetz said earlier this week. “There’s a massive drumbeat out there that the status quo is not what we sent you there to perpetuate. This is a national wave, it’s not something that was driven by Jason Chaffetz. I’m just someone who was smart enough to recognize it and try to get ahead of it.”

He won election to the House in 2008 by toppling incumbent Republican Chris Cannon in the party primary, despite Cannon’s endorsements from President George W. Bush and most of the state’s political establishment, and easily defeating the Democrat in the general election. Two years later, he was re-elected as the tea party movement helped the GOP regain the majority.

Chaffetz has never been shy about seeking leading roles in politics — he’s climbed the power ladder through a mix of media savvy and confrontations with some establishment favorites.

In his campaign against McCarthy, Chaffetz has loudly objected to the majority leader’s gaffe last week in which he suggested that the GOP-led probe into the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, had scored political points against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton, the Democrats’ front-runner, was secretary of state at the time of the attacks, which killed four Americans.

The Oversight panel’s congressional investigations have raised Chaffetz’s prominence but also drawn criticism. Conservatives questioned the panel’s focus on money in a recent hearing on Planned Parenthood, a GOP target after videos surfaced about the group’s procurement of fetal tissue for medical research.

After a job interview with some of the most conservative members of Congress on Tuesday, Chaffetz claimed he’d picked up some support.

“I would just fundamentally change the way we do business around here,” he said after the meeting.

Chaffetz has been married to his wife, Julie, since 1991 and has three children.


Rep. Daniel Webster is the least-known of the candidates, but he is also the only one who has previously run for the House speaker’s office and he has the backing of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

In January, he received 12 votes as part of a failed attempt by some conservatives to oust Boehner from the job at that time. There were 25 dissenters in all, and Webster received more votes than any other Boehner opponent.

As a result, Boehner ousted Webster from his post on the House Rules Committee — the type of retaliatory move that many of Boehner’s opponents cited in wanting him to step down.

A former speaker of the House in Florida, Webster, 66, says he could transform the way the House does business. In Florida, he says, he tackled the most important issues first and didn’t run up against deadlines like Congress does. He has said repeatedly that he wants to flatten “the pyramid of power” so all members get more of a say in how the House is run.

The American people are looking for transformation, he says in a short campaign video directed as his colleagues voting in the speaker’s race.

“As speaker of the House, I would commit to serving you by promoting principle over power, by making you successful by telling you the truth and by earning the right to be heard, not demanding it,” Webster said in the video.

Webster was elected to the House in 2010 after serving in the Florida legislature from 1980 through 2008. After serving as speaker of the Florida House, he moved to the Florida Senate where he became majority leader. In Congress, he serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

One potential problem for Webster — his district may disappear or get more Democratic voters after new congressional lines are drawn in a court-ordered redistricting.

Webster and his wife, Sandy, have six children and 10 grandchildren.


Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.


Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick