Friday 30 September 2016

West urges Russia to 'immediately cease' air-strikes outside ISIS strongholds

* Russia says it hits IS but describes targets where group absent
* Washington says campaign a pretext to target other Assad enemies
* U.S.-led coalition "concerned" at Russian build-up in Syria

By Tom Perry and Lidia Kelly

Published 02/10/2015 | 17:28

Residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The US, Britain and members of the international coalition bombing Islamic State have urged Russia to stop attacking Syrian groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

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As Moscow begins a third day of air-strikes, mainly hitting areas held by rival insurgent groups rather than the ISIS fighters, it has drawn an angry response from the West.

In a joint statement addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the US-led coalition has accused his country’s air force of deliberately not targeting IS forces.

“These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation,” it reads.

“We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting Isis.”

Read More: Syria to join UN groups in bid to establish peace talks

The call comes as the governments of France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UK and US persistent in claims that many of Russia’s air strikes have hit Syrian rebels and civilians since the start of its campaign on Wednesday.

Smoke rises during clashes between forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and the Army of Islam fighters Credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Smoke rises during clashes between forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and the Army of Islam fighters Credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

"We express our deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib since yesterday which led to civilian casualties and did not target Daesh," it continues.

In Syria, the group is one of many fighting against Russia's ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry shows smoke rising after airstrikes carried out by Russian air force in Maarat al-Numan in Syria Credit: REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry shows smoke rising after airstrikes carried out by Russian air force in Maarat al-Numan in Syria Credit: REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

The West and its regional allies have accused Russia using ISIS as a pretext to bomb other groups that opposes its ally President Bashar al-Assad.

Read More: Russian and Ukrainian leaders hold talks in Paris

Some of these groups have received training and weapons from Assad's foreign enemies, including the United States.

Russia bombed Syria for a third day on Friday, mainly hitting areas held by rival insurgent groups rather than the Islamic State fighters Credit: REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Russia bombed Syria for a third day on Friday, mainly hitting areas held by rival insurgent groups rather than the Islamic State fighters Credit: REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

On Friday, President Putin held frosty talks with France's Francois Hollande in Paris, his first meeting with a Western leader since launching the strikes three days after he gave an address to the United Nations making the case to back Assad.

An aide to Mr Hollande said they "tried to narrow differences" over Syria during talks that lasted more than an hour.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Francois Hollande sit together at the start of a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France REUTERS/Etienne Laurent/Pool
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Francois Hollande sit together at the start of a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France REUTERS/Etienne Laurent/Pool

Friday prayers were cancelled in insurgent-held areas of Homs province that were hit by Russian warplanes this week, with residents concerned that mosques could be targeted, said one person from the area.

Read More: 'Russia's intent is to prolong the life of Assad' - US backed Syrian rebels accuse Moscow of bombing them

"The streets are almost completely empty and there is an unannounced curfew," said the resident, speaking from the town of Rastan which was hit in the first day of Russian air strikes.

Warplanes were seen flying high above the area, which is held by anti-Assad rebels but has no significant presence of Islamic State fighters.

Islamic State also cancelled prayers in areas it controls, according to activists from its de facto capital Raqqa.

A Russian air strike on Thursday destroyed a mosque in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, captured from government forces by an alliance of Islamist insurgents earlier this year, activists said.

Moscow said on Friday its latest strikes had hit 12 Islamic State targets, but most of the areas it described were in western and northern parts of the country, while Islamic State is mostly present in the east.

Read More: Iran and Hezbollah prepare fresh offensive against Isil

The Russian Defence Ministry said its Sukhoi-34, Sukhoi-24M and Sukhoi-25 warplanes had flown 18 sorties hitting targets that included a command post and a communications centre in the province of Aleppo, a militant field camp in Idlib and a command post in Hama.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, said there was no Islamic State presence at any of those areas.

Lebanese sources have told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops have also arrived in recent days in Syria to participate in a major ground offensive alongside government troops and their Lebanese and Iraqi Shi'ite militia allies.

Reuters

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