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Saturday 17 March 2018

US urges Russians to focus airstrikes on Islamic State

Footage from the Russian defence ministry official web site shows a bomb explosion in Syria (Russian defence ministry/AP)
Footage from the Russian defence ministry official web site shows a bomb explosion in Syria (Russian defence ministry/AP)

Pentagon officials urged the Russian military to focus its airstrikes in Syria on Islamic State (IS) fighters rather than opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow are escalating over Russian airstrikes that apparently are serving to strengthen Assad by targeting rebels - perhaps including some aligned with the US - rather than hitting IS fighters it promised to attack.

"What is important is Russia has to not be engaged in any activities against anybody but (the Islamic State group)," US secretary of state John Kerry said. "That's clear. We have made that very clear."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest described Russia's air operations, which began on Monday, as "indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition".

Elissa Slotkin, who represented the US side in Thursday's talks, said as much during the hour-long video conference call, according to Mr Earnest.

Ms Slotkin is the acting assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, and the talks were described as cordial and professional.

"She pointed out that the Russian military operations we've seen so far raise some concerns, because Russia is targeting areas where there are few if any ISIL forces operating," Mr Earnest said, using an IS acronym.

Of further concern is the prospect of the US and Russia getting drawn into a shooting war if Russian warplanes hit moderate Syrian rebels who have been trained and equipped by the US and received promises of US air support in the event they are attacked.

Russia's planes are based inside Syria, while those of the US and its coalition partners are flying from various countries in the region, including Turkey and Jordan.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said both sides in Thursday's talks presented proposals and ideas for avoiding conflict between US and Russian aircraft.

He said these would be studied further before deciding whether to hold further discussions.

Mr Cook said the US side proposed using specific international radio frequencies for distress calls by military pilots flying in Syrian airspace.

Russia's defence ministry said that over the past 24 hours it had damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to IS fighters, including a command centre and ammunition depots.

A US military spokesman in Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, said he had no indication that the Russians had hit IS targets.

He said there was only one US airstrike in Syria over the past 24 hours, compared to an average of eight strikes per day, but added that this had nothing to do with the start of Russian airstrikes.

Lieutenant General Robert Otto, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence and surveillance for the US air force, said the Russians have been dropping "dumb bombs," a reference to munitions that are not precision-guided.

The use of such indiscriminate targeting could kill innocent civilians, which could have the unintended consequence of creating more terrorists than they kill, he said.

Press Association

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