Islamic State fighters have captured the town of Maheen in central Homs province, a monitoring group reported, as fighting escalated despite a flurry of diplomatic activity and talks between regional rivals, Reuters reports,

A Syrian family run for cover after Islamic State militants captured the town of Maheen Sunday

Islamic State issued a statement claiming the advance, which brought it within 20 km (13 miles) of the north-south highway linking Damascus to Syria’s other main cities Homs, Hama and Aleppo.

Syrian state media made no mention of the attack.

The attack is seen as a response to pressures the group is under elsewhere.

On the other side of Syria in the northeastern province of Hasaka, Islamic State is facing a new offensive launched by a recently formed US-backed rebel alliance.

Fighting is going on between the rebel alliance, including the Kurdish YPG militia, and Islamic State fighters in the area of al-Houl near the Iraqi border.

Hold elections to end war: Khamenei

Iran’s clerical supreme leader said elections should be held in Syria to end the civil war there and criticised foreign powers that arm and fund Syrian opposition fighters.

In an annual address to the Islamic Republic’s top diplomats Sunday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also said US objectives in the Middle East were the opposite of Iran’s and that negotiating with Washington on regional issues was meaningless.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attended the meeting after returning from inconclusive talks with world powers in Vienna on Friday aimed at finding a solution to the war, the first time Iran had participated in such talks.

“The solution to the Syrian question is elections, and for this it is necessary to stop military and financial aid to the opposition,” several state media outlets quoted Khamenei as saying.

Iran has backed President Bashar al-Assad throughout Syria’s conflict and sent troops to assist his army. Other regional powers, including Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia, support a variety of armed rebel factions. The war, in its fifth year, has killed around 250,000 people and displaced millions more.

The Vienna talks were attended by 17 countries including the United States, which has called for Assad to leave power as part of a political transition process. He has refused to do so.

But Khamenei, who tolerated talks with the United States to reach a deal on Iran’s disputed nuclear program in July, has ruled out negotiating with Washington on any other issue.

“The Americans are trying to impose their own interests, not resolve issues, 60% or 70% through negotiations and the rest through illegal actions. So what is the meaning of negotiating with them?” the conservative leader said.

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