The Latest: Syrian group says Russian strikes killed 36

AP News
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Posted: Sep 30, 2015 6:44 PM
The Latest: Syrian group says Russian strikes killed 36

MOSCOW (AP) — The latest developments as Russia and other nations counter Islamic State militants in Syria. All times local:

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6:40 p.m. (EDT)

Russia is dismissing claims that its airstrikes in Syria have killed civilians, saying the claims are false and part of an "information war."

A spokesman for Russia's foreign ministry on Wednesday said of the allegations by the Syrian opposition, "Actually, they were published even before the airstrikes started."

The spokeswoman told reporters on the sidelines of a U.N. gathering of world leaders that Russia is acting "absolutely, legitimately" according to international law.

She adds that "Honestly I don't understand what is the difference between the French air bombings and Russia's. There's only one difference, we're acting according to a request from Damascus."

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5:30 p.m. (EDT)

The Syrian National Council opposition group says Russian airstrikes north of Homs city killed 36 civilians, including five children and one member of the civil defense units known as the White Helmets.

Khaled Khoja, leader of the group, says at a press conference at the United Nations Wednesday that the strikes also hit a base for the Free Syrian Army but resulted in no casualties. He said there are no Islamic State group forces in the four areas struck Wednesday.

The claim could not be independently verified.

"Russian claims that they are there to fight IS are baseless. That was proven today," he said. He called Russia an occupying force and called for a "war of liberation" against Russian forces.

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11:15 p.m.

The U.N. secretary-general says airstrikes by any country in Syria must strictly observe international humanitarian and human rights law.

The spokesman for Ban Ki-moon told reporters Wednesday that all efforts must be made to spare civilians, and reports of civilian deaths must be swiftly investigated.

Stephane Dujarric added that "without genuine commitment by the international community to support a parallel political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, it will not be possible to end the Syrian conflict and ultimately to defeat" the Islamic State group.

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9:50 p.m.

The leader of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group is condemning "Russia's military aggression in Syria today."

Wednesday's statement by Khaled Khoja of the Syrian National Coalition accuses Russia of targeting civilians instead of Russia's stated target of the Islamic State group.

Khoja says Russia is "using its military force to support the Assad regime's war against civilians. And it risks implicating itself in war crimes."

The opposition leader urged the international community to call for "the enforcement of a ban on aerial bombardment" in Syria but didn't further specify the scope of such a ban. He also said he was writing to the U.N. Security Council to demand urgent action.

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9:35 p.m.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the Russian airstrikes in Syria appear to have targeted areas that do not include Islamic State fighters.

Carter made the comment at a Pentagon news conference, where he offered few details about the strikes but said they point out a contradiction in Russia's approach. He said the Russians should not be supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, and their military moves are "doomed to fail."

Carter also expressed disappointment that the Russians did not use formal channels to provide the U.S. with advance notice of its airstrikes.

"By supporting Assad and seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad, you're taking on the whole rest of the country of Syria," Carter said. "That is not our position. At least some parts of the anti-Assad opposition belong in the political transition going forward. That's why . the Russian approach is doomed to fail."

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9:05 p.m.

Iraq's prime minister is clarifying that his country's cooperation with Russia, Syria and Iran is for intelligence only and not a military cooperation.

The office of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi posted a statement on his official Facebook page saying that "Iraq has not agreed to establish a military coordination cell with the said countries, and any claim to the contrary is false."

The statement was issued hours after Russia announced its airstrikes in Syria and said the strikes were targeting the Islamic State group.

Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq startled the United States on Sunday when Iraq's military said the countries will begin sharing "security and intelligence" information to help combat the Islamic State group.

Earlier Wednesday, Syrian state TV quoted the country's foreign minister as praising a new mechanism for coordination between the countries to combat terrorism.

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8:40 p.m.

A moderate Western-backed Syrian rebel group says one of its leading officers has been killed in the Russian airstrikes in Syria's central Homs province.

The group said on its website Wednesday that Iyad al-Deek died in an airstrike in the rural north of Homs. Al-Deek was an officer in the Syrian army but defected soon after the Syrian revolution turned into a war in 2011.

The group didn't provide any more details.

Activists and a rebel commander in Syria earlier Wednesday claimed the Russian airstrikes in the country have mostly hit moderate rebel positions and civilians. Russian officials have dismissed such claims.

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8:25 p.m.

Germany's foreign minister says Russia's airstrikes in Syria don't diminish his concerns about the situation in the country and is calling for more information on the attacks.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York that there's no authoritative information yet on "the targets and methods of these airstrikes." He added that "Russia must have an interest of its own in ensuring that this is cleared up as quickly as possible."

Steinmeier said that "in this heated situation, there is a great danger that there could be further misunderstandings."

He noted that his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov has said all must ensure that international efforts to fight the Islamic State group are coordinated, and said: "this also goes for Russian activities."

Steinmeier insisted that there ultimately will be no military solution to Syria's conflict.

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8:20 p.m.

Syria's foreign minister says his country strongly endorses "the initiative of President Putin" and is calling French and other airstrikes in Syria that aren't coordinated with his government a "blatant contravention" of international law.

Walid al-Moallem spoke to the U.N. Security Council shortly after Russia announced its own airstrikes and circulated to council members a draft resolution aimed at coordinating global efforts in the fight against terror.

"Those who really do want to fight terrorism in Syria need to cooperate their work with the government in Syria," al-Moallem told the council, and he urged everyone to follow Russia's call.

He also questioned what the council has done to fight terrorism. Russia's use of its veto has blocked several proposals on Syria.

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8:15 p.m.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States is prepared to welcome Russian military action in Syria as long as it is directed against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida affiliates.

Speaking at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Kerry said that the U.S. would have "grave concerns" if Russia conducted strikes against other groups. And, he said Russian operations must not support Syrian President Bashar Assad or interfere with those of the U.S.-led coalition that is already attacking Islamic States targets.

Kerry spoke as Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria targeting what it said were Islamic State positions. U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces.

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8:10 p.m.

Syrian state TV is quoting the country's foreign minister as praising a new mechanism for coordination between Damascus, Russia, Iran and Iraq to combat terrorism.

Walid al-Moallem was quoted by state TV Wednesday as discussing the new mechanism with his Iraqi counterpart at the sidelines of a United Nations' meetings in New York.

Iraq had previously said it will begin sharing intelligence with Syria, Russia and Iran to help combat the Islamic State group.

Al-Moallem said the new mechanism provides a way for the four countries to coordinate their fight against terrorism.

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8:00 p.m.

U.S. Senate Republicans are denouncing Russia's actions in Syria.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the airstrikes "pretty incredible" and criticized President Barack Obama's administration for not taking a stronger stance against Russia.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that initial reports are that Russian pilots were hitting targets not controlled by IS.

He said some strikes were near the city of Homs, which the militants do not control, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin's true intentions are to maintain a strong position in Syria and support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He also criticized Obama for saying that the U.S. is willing to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the Syrian conflict.

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7:55 p.m.

Britain's foreign minister says his country welcomes Russia's new "focus" on using force against the Islamic State group in Syria, but warns it's "very important that Russia be able to confirm that military action it has undertaken this morning" doesn't target Syria's moderate opposition.

Philip Hammond told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that actions in support of Syria's government are incompatible with the fight against terrorism.

Hammond said the international community will expect Russia to use the growing influence it has in Syria to pressure Syria's government not to use barrel bombs against civilians and to prevent any use of chemicals as weapons.

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7:40 p.m.

France's Foreign Minister says "initial indications" show Russian airstrikes in Syria didn't target zones controlled by the Islamic State group, and said if confirmed this runs counter to a condition France has set on agreeing to join a Russian coalition against the extremists.

Laurent Fabius says "verification is underway" to determine what the Russian strikes targeted, but that it currently appears they may have targeted zones held by Syrian opposition forces, who Russia considers terrorists seeking to overthrow its long-time ally Bashar Assad.

Fabius said France is not against the Russian proposal of an anti-IS coalition, but on three conditions: that strikes only target IS, that the Syrian regime end barrel bombing of civilian populations, and that negotiations for a political solution resume, with the understanding that Assad cannot be a part of the solution.

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7:35 p.m.

A prominent member of Russia's parliament has suggested that Russia could strike beyond Syria if the extremists targeted by its airstrikes flee across the border.

"When you poison an insect it's not enough to send it into the neighbors' kitchen," said Konstantin Kosachyov, who chairs the international affairs committee in the Russian parliament's upper house. "This would make our efforts to counter terrorism meaningless."

Kosachyov noted that President Vladimir Putin's request for authorization to use military force abroad did not specify the country, adding that this was intentional.

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7:30 p.m.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has told Russia's LifeNews TV station that reports of civilian casualties from the Russian airstrikes in Syria are part of an "information war."

She said "all this is the same sort of information attack, the same sort of information war, of which we hear so many times and which, it appears, someone prepared well."

Activists and a rebel commander in Syria earlier Wednesday claimed the Russian airstrikes in the country have mostly hit moderate rebel positions and civilians.

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7:20 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the use of Russian military force in Syria adds a "troubling" new development to the war in Syria and throws Assad a "life line."

He said it could be more destabilizing than Turkey's effort to combat the Kurds.

"The Russian air campaign may be even more destructive if it targets moderate rebel forces fighting the Assad regime," Schiff said.

"The increased longevity of the regime - made possible by this Russian intervention - will only prolong the civil war, which will continue as long as a regime that barrel bombs its own people remains in power," he said.

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7:05 p.m.

The U.S. conducted airstrikes in Syria as planned Wednesday including one near Aleppo, which is in the northwest but not near where the Russians were flying, a U.S. official said.

The official said the Russian officer who notified the U.S. of the strikes said the U.S. should stay out of Syrian airspace and remove any troops it has on the ground working with rebels in Syria.

The U.S. has repeatedly said it has no U.S. military forces on the ground in Syria.

The official was not authorized to discuss the missions publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

—By Lolita Baldor and Robert Burns in Washington

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7:00 p.m.

Activists and a rebel commander in Syria claim the Russian airstrikes in the country have mostly hit moderate rebel positions and civilians.

In a video released by the U.S.-backed rebel group Tajamu Alezzah, jets are seen hitting a building claimed to be a location of the group in the town of Latamna in the central Hama province.

The group commander Jameel al-Saleh told a local Syrian news website that the group's location was hit by Russian jets but didn't specify the damage.

A group of local activists in the town of Talbiseh in Homs province recorded at least 16 civilians killed, including two children. A Syrian military official had earlier said the Russian jets hit this town.

The AP could not independently verify the claims.

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6:25 p.m.

Former CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, has said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's immediate objective in Syria is to solidify the corridor on the Mediterranean coast between Latakia where he has an air base and Tartus where he has a Russian naval base.

As he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Petraeus said Putin also wants to help Syrian President Bashar Assad solidify his grip on the country, which has been increasingly challenged in recent months by the Islamic State and other opposition groups.

Petraeus warned against partnering with Russia, Iran and Assad against IS and said the U.S. should deter any action by Russia involving any of the forces backed by the U.S.

"If Russia wanted to fight ISIS, they could have joined the 60-plus member coalition that Gen. Allen has so capably put together and help drop bombs on ISIS. They have some capabilities that would be useful to that fight so this is clearly not what they're up to," he said.

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6:15 p.m.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein says she thinks it's possible that Russia's move in Syria could be a positive development.

Feinstein, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said help from "Russia and Iran in a political solution for Syria is important."

Feinstein said the key is to defeat the Islamic State group and then to hold an election in Syria, and that the U.S. should cooperate with Russia.

She said it was important to "change the dynamic" because IS continues to encroach on other states.

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6:05 p.m.

A senior U.S. official says Russia's airstrikes in Syria did not appear to be targeting the Islamic State group, but other opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The official said IS militants are not in the western part of the country, beyond Homs, where the Russian strikes were directed.

The official was not authorized to discuss the Russian airstrikes publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russia notified the U.S. about the impending airstrikes through the embassy in Baghdad about an hour before they started, the official said.

According to the official, there were no conflicts with the Russian strikes, and they had no impact on the coalition missions, which are primarily in the north and east.

The U.S. is still trying to assess the damages of the Russian strikes.

—By Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burn in Washington.

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5:50 p.m.

A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group has claimed that Russian warplanes have hit its positions in central Syria.

The group, known as Tajamu Alezzah, wrote scornfully on Twitter Wednesday that "eradicating terrorism appears to begin with attacks" on its locations in the central city of Latamna in the province of Hama.

The group, which boasts of having TOW missiles, didn't provide specific details on the targets or how it can ascertain the strikes were by Russian jets.

Washington has equipped and trained a number of moderate Syrian rebel groups but most have been crushed by al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria.

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5:45 p.m.

Russia's foreign minister is telling the foreign ministers of world powers that his country is "ready to forge standing channels of communication to ensure a maximally effective fight against terrorist groups" with the United States and other countries.

Sergey Lavrov spoke Wednesday to the U.N. Security Council shortly after Russia's defense ministry announced its jets are carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State group positions in Syria.

Lavrov said Russia would shortly circulate a draft council resolution to promote joint efforts against groups like the Islamic State.

Lavrov addressed the council during a major U.N. gathering of world leaders. Russia is chairing the meeting as the council president this month.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also is expected to address the meeting.

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5:35 p.m.

A Syrian military official says Russian warplanes have targeted positions of the Islamic State group in central Syria.

Syrian state TV quotes an unnamed military official as saying that the air raids are part of the "Russian-Syrian agreement to fight international terrorism and wipe out the Daesh organization."

The official used an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.

The official said on Wednesday that the air raids targeted the extremists' positions in central Syria including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, as well as areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.

The official said the Russian airstrikes were in cooperation with the Syrian air force.

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5:00 p.m.

Pentagon's press secretary says Defense Secretary Ash Carter has instructed his staff to talk to Russian officials about how to keep each other's air operations in Syria from colliding or getting in each other's way.

Peter Cook said it was not yet clear when these talks would start or who would participate.

Russia's defense ministry earlier Tuesday said its jets have started carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State group positions in Syria.

A U.S. led coalition has been targeting IS militants in Syria and Iraq since last year.

Russia and the U.S. are at odds over the Russian involvement because Washington has said Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is a key ally of Moscow, must be removed from power.

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4:20 p.m.

Russia's defense ministry says its jets are carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria.

The ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies on Wednesday that Russian jets are carrying out targeted airstrikes on the positions, vehicles and warehouses that Russia believes belong to IS militants.

Earlier Wednesday, Russia's upper chamber of parliament gave the green light to President Vladimir Putin's request to use Russian forces in Syria. A Kremlin official said the move was to protect Russia's national security, since at least 2,400 Russians have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is a key ally of Moscow.