Russia begins airstrikes in Syria; opposition says rebels were hit

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Russian on Wednesday said it had begun airstrikes against the Islamic State terrorist organization in war-torn Syria, but the Syrian opposition claimed that the raids had hit rebel-held territory and killed civilians.

Syrian state media and opposition representatives both reported Russian strikes in areas of central Syria where rebel forces and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, but not Islamic State, are thought to operate.

The Russian action was announced hours after the country’s parliament unanimously approved a request from President Vladimir Putin to use military force in Syria following a request from the Syrian government.

The strikes targeted Islamic State military equipment, weapon stores, communications hubs and means of transportation, a Defence Ministry spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported that the Russian air force hit “Islamic State dens” around the towns of Talbiseh, Rastan and Salamiya north of the central city of Homs.

Rebel groups hostile to Islamic State control the area around Talbiseh and Rastan, while both rebels and Islamic State operate in areas near Salamiya.

Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, has also recently claimed attacks against government-held villages in the area.

The Syrian opposition National Coalition denounced the strikes.

“All the targets in today’s Russian air raid over northern Homs were civilians,” Coalition president Khaled Khoja wrote on Twitter.

Khoja said 36 civilians had been killed in “ISIL & Al Qaeda free areas.”

A rebel group called Tajammu al-Izza said one of its bases had been hit in the Russian strikes. The group said it was opposed to both Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said that 27 civilians, including 10 children, were killed in airstrikes in the areas mentioned by SANA. The Observatory was unable to confirm who carried out the strikes.

The Kremlin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said the support was exclusively within Russia’s national interests.

Putin, in televised comments, said the support would be conducted from the air without participation in ground operations.

The United States said a Russian official in Baghdad informed the US embassy on Wednesday morning that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-Islamic State missions over Syria.

The Russian official also requested that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

“The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL [Islamic State],” Kirby added.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle East, and his troops are overstretched, fighting a four-year war against jihadists and Western-backed rebels seeking to end his rule.

The UN Human Rights Council has accused al-Assad’s regime of committing crimes against humanity, including killing civilians, in its efforts to hold onto power.

The council has made analogous accusations against major groups battling al-Assad’s forces, especially Islamic State.

A Putin spokesman revealed this month that the Russian president was considering sending troops to Syria, and the US government said it was monitoring a Russian military build-up at an airport near Latakia.

Russia said it is sending weapons to al-Assad to help his government fight terrorist groups such as Islamic State, which controls large areas in Syria and Iraq.

Russia shrugged off US concerns over the involvement of Russian troops in the conflict, saying “Russian military specialists” have been in Syria for many years to help with Russian-made equipment.

The US embassy in Moscow on Wednesday told dpa that when Putin and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, met this week in New York “they agreed that the United States and Russia have a common interest in fighting Islamic State.”

Obama said in his speech to the United Nations that “the United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.”

“However, our position is clear that President al-Assad is not a suitable partner for the fight against terror and extremism in Syria,” embassy spokesman Will Stevens said. “There is no sustainable path to stability within Syria that involves President al-Assad staying in power.”

A quarter of a million people have died in the conflict, according to estimates by the United Nations. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.

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