Russian jets hit Syrian rebels, Moscow says Islamic State targeted

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 03, 2015 9:11 AM

By Alexander Winning and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

MOSCOW/AMMAN (Reuters) - Russian jets hit Islamic State targets and other rebel groups in Syria on Saturday, on a fourth day of air strikes by Moscow in support of President Bashar al-Assad which have dramatically escalated foreign intervention in Syria.

Russia's air campaign in Syria, where a U.S.-led air coalition and fighters on the ground from regional states are already entangled in the four-year-old civil war, has drawn strong criticism from the United States and its allies.

Britain's defense minister said on Saturday that only one in 20 Russian air strikes in Syria were aimed at the hardline Islamic State forces, which control large parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Michael Fallon accused Russia of dropping unguided munitions on civilian areas, and against Assad's Western and Gulf-backed enemies. Russia says it is targeting Islamic State with precision bombs.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 39 civilians had been killed since the start of the Russian air strikes on Wednesday. It said 14 fighters, mostly Islamic State militants, had also been killed.

Russia said its planes made over 20 flights in Syria in the past 24 hours and targeted nine Islamic State sites, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement.

Targets included a command post and underground weapons bunker near Raqqa, the eastern Syrian stronghold of the Islamic State militants, as well as a weapons store in Maarat al-Numaan, Russian defense ministry statement said.

Maarat al-Numaan, in Syria's northern province of Idlib, is not known as an Islamic State base. Most fighters in the area are from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and other insurgent groups, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

A Syrian military source, quoted by state media, said Russian and Syrian planes destroyed a command center in Latamneh, in Hama province, where Western-backed rebels operate. They also hit a training camp and weapons depot in Maarat al-Numaan, and weapons and ammunitions stores in Jisr al-Shughour.

WESTERN-BACKED REBELS HIT

The Russian air strikes have hit at least four rebel factions operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army which had received significant military support from states that oppose Assad, rebel fighters said this week.

Some have been trained in the use of guided anti-tank missiles as part of an assistance program that has in some cases included training overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency in countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

This program is separate to the U.S. Defense Department’s train and equip program aimed at fighting Islamic State.

The anti-tank weapons, supplied by states opposed to Assad, were an important factor in insurgent advances this year.

The Russian defense ministry said Su-34 and Su-24M aircraft, flying from an air base near Syria's Mediterranean port of Latakia, took part in the most recent strikes. A Su-34 plane destroyed a command post and underground bunker with explosives and weapons near Raqqa, it said.

In Maarat al-Numaan, a guided KAB-500 bomb destroyed seven vehicles as well as other facilities and weapons stores, the statement said, adding that the type of bomb was accurate to within 5 meters of its assigned target.

"In recent days, these and other precision weapons have been used against ISIS terrorist facilities: command centers, ammunition and ... depots, workshops where armament for terrorist attacks is produced," it said.

Rescue workers in opposition-held areas in western Syria say the strikes have killed at least several dozen civilians, including children.

A fighter operating in the Al-Ghab region in north-west Syria reported several air strikes. "Russian warplanes hit a number of areas in the Ghab plain. They are hitting all the factions fighting Assad. The only casualties are civilians," said Abu el Baraa al Hamawi, from Ajnaad al-Sham rebel group.

He said there were "Russian experts" at a Syrian army base in the area, as well as increasing numbers of personnel from Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

A Syrian military source said an Islamic State attack on government troops in the eastern city of Deir al Zor had failed, and the army had killed a large number of "terrorists".

(Additional reporting by Kate Holton in; London, Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)