Beirut: Syrian opposition fighters have seized several areas in a rapid advance against government forces in central Hama province, prompting a wave of regime air strikes, a monitor said Thursday.

At least 25 civilians, including children, were killed in the strikes early Thursday as fighting raged in parts of Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitoring group said Syrian rebels had launched an offensive on Monday in Hama, which is south of the opposition-held Idlib province.

They are aiming to take control of the airport in Hama, from which regime helicopters fly regular sorties against opposition fighters.

“They are about 10 kilometres from the airport” in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city, said Observatory director Rami Abdul Rahman, whose group relies on a broad network of sources inside Syria.

The rebels are also likely seeking to ease pressure on opposition fighters in the battleground northern city of Aleppo by distracting regime forces.

In three days the rebel alliance seized control of 13 populated areas, mainly in the north of Hama province, including the towns of Halfaya and Suran.

They were also threatening the historic Christian town of Mahrada to the west along the road.

Hama province is of vital strategic importance to President Bashar Al Assad, separating opposition forces in Idlib from Damascus to the south and the regime’s coastal heartlands to the west.

Major demonstrations erupted in Hama in 2011 during the outbreak of Syria’s civil conflict but were suppressed in a deadly government crackdown.

Al Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez Al Assad brutally put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama city in 1982, killing thousands of people.