Russia again strikes Assad's foes, amid US concerns

Beirut (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Francois Hollande were gearing up for talks on the Syrian conflict on Friday, as tensions rose after Moscow unleashed a fresh wave of bombing over Syrian soil.

Russia says its airstrikes are against the Islamic State group (IS), and have so far hit five targets belonging to the jihadists, but Washington has disputed this and argues they are in fact aimed at supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Pentagon held what they said were "cordial and professional" talks with Russian officials on Thursday in a bid to avoid mishaps between the two military powers in the region.

A US-led coalition has been targeting IS for about a year and is carrying out near-daily airstrikes in Syria, but the Pentagon worries any run-in with Russian planes could spark a major international incident.

Tensions have been running high at the UN where Russia and Iran, which both support Assad, have clashed with Western powers that argue removing him from power is vital to end Syria's bloody four-year civil war.

IS has taken advantage of the chaos to seize territory across Syria and Iraq, which it rules under its own brutal interpretation of Islamic law, and has recruited thousands of foreign jihadists to its cause.

Speaking ahead of his talks with Putin, Hollande said airstrikes in Syria should target IS exclusively.

He said it was essential to ensure that "the strikes, regardless of who is carrying them out, target Daesh and not other groups", using the Arabic acronym for the Islamist group.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the UN Russia was targeting the same terror groups as the US-led coalition, including IS and Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.

"If it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?" he asked.

- 'Information warfare' -

Putin also rejected allegations that civilians had been killed in Russian raids, dubbing the reports "information warfare".

Russia's defence ministry said it had hit five IS targets, including a training camp and command post in northwest Idlib province.

"We have prevented IS fighters from re-establishing a command post in... Hama province that had been destroyed," added Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.

Earlier Moscow said its raids had destroyed a "terrorist" headquarters, a weapons warehouse, a command centre and a car bomb factory.

A Syrian security source said the strikes had targeted Islamist rebels that fiercely oppose IS, and US-backed rebel group Suqur al-Jabal said Russian warplanes attacked its training camp in Idlib.

The group has received training and equipment as part of a $500-million US programme to build an anti-IS force.

The Syrian conflict, which began as protests against Assad's regime in 2011, has escalated into a multi-faceted war pitting multiple Islamist and secular groups against each other.

US Senator John McCain accused Russian warplanes of striking groups "funded and trained by our CIA", saying Moscow's real priority was "to prop up Assad".

Meanwhile the US-led coalition said it had "not altered operations in Syria to accommodate new players on the battlefield", and a Pentagon spokesman said it had conducted strikes in Syria in the past 24 hours.

- UN resolution -

Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu said he felt "serious concern over the information that Russia's airstrikes targeted opposition positions instead of Daesh".

After meeting Sinirlioglu, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: "What is important is Russia has to not be engaged in any activities against anybody but ISIL (IS). That's clear."

The strikes came as Russia presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that would call for consent from Damascus for attacks against IS in Syria.

Washington had previously blocked a similar resolution, and no date has been set for a vote on the latest one.

After weeks of Russian military build-up in Syria, Russian senators on Wednesday unanimously approved armed intervention.

It remains unclear how much of the opposition fighting Assad's army -- including the Western-backed opposition -- is considered by Moscow as a potential target.

A Russian foreign ministry official said Moscow could broaden its campaign to Iraq if Baghdad asks, but Lavrov later told reporters Moscow was "not planning to expand our airstrikes to Iraq".

Russia's defence ministry said Moscow had sent more than 50 military aircraft as well as marines, paratroopers and special forces into Syria.

Russia and the West are in deep disagreement over Syria, with Western powers blaming Assad for starting a war that has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.

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