Russia targets Islamic State in new airstrikes in Syria

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Beirut (dpa) – Russian warplanes have launched new airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist militia in Syria, Syrian state media and activists reported Friday amid growing concerns about civilian casualties.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that Russian jets along with government warplanes, carried out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the provinces of Aleppo in the north, Hama in the centre and Idlib in the north-west.

Command centres and arms warehouses of the al-Qaeda splinter group were destroyed in the bombing, according to SANA. No casualties were given.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists in Syria, said at least 12 Islamic State insurgents had been killed in strikes by Russian warplanes in the eastern province of al-Raqqa, the stronghold of the radical group in Syria.

“The Russian aircraft carried out overnight at least nine strikes in al-Raqqa, killing 12 Islamic State militants,” Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, told dpa.

The Observatory also reported that Russian jets pounded facilities of the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, in the southern part of Idlib.

On Wednesday, Russia, a major ally of Syria, started its first airstrikes there, insisting they are aimed at the Islamic State that rules large swathes of the war-torn country.

However, the West-backed Syrian opposition said the strikes had killed civilians and targeted moderate rebels hostile to both the Islamic State and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

At least seven civilians were killed in overnight Russian airstrikes in the rebel-held town of Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib, according to the Observatory.

The dead included a child and a woman.

Jabal al-Zawiya is mainly controlled by al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebel groups.

On Friday, several air raids believed to be mounted by Russian jets also targeted the town of Qaryatain on the south-eastern outskirts of Homs province in central Syria, the Observatory said without reporting casualties.

The Islamic State seized Qaryatain, a mostly Christian area, from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in August.

Emboldened by Russia’s air campaign, Syrian government helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives on the rebel-controlled town of Ezzul Din on the northern part of Homs, the Observatory said. No casualties were reported.

Ousama Abu Zeid, a military advisor for the opposition Free Syrian Army, expected a spike in Russian airstrikes against al-Assad’s opponents.

“We have solid information that the Russians strikes are going to intensify in the coming days as there are preparations by Bashar al-Assad and his allies, the Iranian- backed Lebanese Hezbollah movement, to launch also a ground attack on [rebel-held] areas in northern Syria,” Abu Zeid said.

“Many troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah have been massed to carry this attack. They will be backed by Russian airstrikes.”

Some analysts have also questioned the agenda of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

“The Russian bombing campaign is targeting mainstream Syrian rebels – both Islamists and non-Islamists – who have been threatening the Assad regime thanks to serious military successes since the beginning of the year,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Russia seeks to ensure the survival of Assad first and foremost and those threatening Assad are non-ISIS rebels,” he told dpa, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Al-Assad’s troops, overstretched by the country’s conflict now in its fifth year, have suffered military setbacks by rebels in recent months.

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