France, Russia raids on Syria kill 33 IS jihadists

Beirut (AFP) - French and Russian air raids were reported Wednesday to have killed 33 Islamic State group fighters in their Syrian stronghold Raqa, in a barrage of strikes after the jihadist attacks in Paris.

The raids came a day after Moscow said it was a "terrorist attack" that brought down a Russian passenger jet over Egypt last month, killing all 224 people on board.

Those deaths and the shootings and suicide bombings in Paris were claimed by the Islamic State, which declared a self-styled "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria last year.

Since Sunday, Russian and French raids have struck arms depots, barracks and other areas in Raqa city, the jihadists' bastion in northern Syria.

"This is where we must hit Daesh, in its lifeblood," said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, using the Arabic acronym for the group in comments late Wednesday.

A preliminary death toll by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said 72 hours of strikes "have left 33 dead and dozens wounded in IS ranks."

"The limited number of deaths can be explained by the fact that the jihadists had taken precautions," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, who relies on a network of activists, medics and other sources inside Syria.

"There were only guards around the depots and barracks and most of those killed were at the checkpoints," he said.

The families of foreign fighters in IS, which number thousands, had left Raqa for Mosul, IS's relatively "safer" Iraq bastion.

The Pentagon said Moscow warned Washington of its impending attacks on Raqa. This was to avoid any US planes in the area being endangered, spokesman Peter Cook said, which "wasn't necessary in this case".

- IS based in 'civilian homes' -

Aktham Alwany, a journalist and activist from Raqa, said civilians in the city were "only moving around when necessary."

"No one knows when the next strike is, whichever the nationality -- Russian, regime, coalition," and many are considering moving to the city's outskirts which are bombed less frequently, he said.

"Unfortunately, it's no secret that IS's bases are inside civilian homes. There are some bases that look like they're for IS, but in reality they're empty fakes, while civilian homes are teeming with them," Alwany told AFP.

Raqa city was Syria's first provincial capital lost by the government, seized by rebels in 2013 then overrun by IS in January 2014.

When the jihadist group captured Mosul in neighbouring Iraq in June 2014, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a "caliphate" across Iraq and Syria.

The group's speedy expansion sparked a US-led coalition to begin carrying out air strikes on it in both Iraq and Syria. France began striking the latter as part of the coalition in September.

And Moscow began its own air war in Syria, in coordination with embattled President Bashar al-Assad, on September 30.

But after the attacks in Paris and the downing of the Russian civilian airliner, France and Russia agreed to coordinate their military and security services to fight IS.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin instructed his military to work with France "as allies," and agreed in a phone call with French President Francois Hollande on "closer contact and coordination" of operations in Syria.

- Assad a 'lesser evil' -

And US President Barack Obama praised Russia as a "constructive partner" in international talks in Vienna aimed at reaching a solution to Syria's bloody conflict, which has left 250,000 dead.

The US and France have been firm backers of Syria's uprising, while Russia and Iran have remained staunch allies of Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday it would be "simply unacceptable" to set Assad's departure as a precondition to "fight against terror."

Although profound differences in policies remain, IS's attacks have shifted international focus on to the jihadist group.

Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu said Wednesday Ankara "has plans" for a joint operation with the United States to root out IS's presence along its border with Syria.

And Spain's foreign minister said engaging with Assad was a "lesser evil."

"If you want peace, you are going to have get along with Assad at least on a temporary basis," Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said.

Late Tuesday, Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate and key IS rival, Al-Nusra Front, said it had downed two Russian reconnaissance drones over an airbase it controls in northwestern Syria.

If confirmed, the incident would be the first time the armed opposition down a Russian aircraft in Syria.