2 Oct 2015

Russia defends Syrian air strikes

7:58 am on 2 October 2015

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has defended his country's air strikes in Syria, saying they were targeting the same "terrorist" groups as the US-led coalition.

A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows damaged buildings and a minaret in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province.

Damaged buildings in the town of Talbisseh in Syria's Homs province, pictured on 30 September 2015. Photo: AFP

He rejected suggestions that Russian action was to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He also said Russia did not consider the opposition Free Syrian Army to be a terrorist group.

Russian jets carried out a second day of air strikes in Syria on Thursday.

The Russian defence ministry said five sites were attacked and an Islamic State (IS) command post at Jisr al-Shughour was destroyed.

The Kremlin says it is acting on the request of the Syrian government to help combat IS militants - who have seized parts of Syria and Iraq - and other designated terrorist groups.

But the US and its allies fear the strikes have mainly targeted opponents of Russia's ally, President Assad.

Mr Lavrov, speaking at the UN in New York, said Russia would fight IS and other terrorist groups including the al-Nusra Front - an al-Qaeda affiliate.

He said this position was the same as the US-led coalition which has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria for several months.

"We are not supporting anyone against their own people. We fight terrorism," he said.

"As far as I understand it, the [US-led] coalition announced Isil (IS) and other associated groups as the enemy. And the coalition does the same as Russia does."

Mr Lavrov said the sites being attacked were selected "in co-ordination with the Syrian army".

On the Free Syrian Army he added: "We believe that the Free Syrian Army should be part of the political process like some other armed groups on the ground composed of Syrian patriotic opposition individuals."

Mr Lavrov also said there were no plans to expand air strikes to Iraq.

"We were not invited; we were not asked. And we are polite people, as you know. We don't come if not invited," he said.

Russian action in Syria has raised fears of accidental conflict with the US-led campaign and Mr Lavrov said the first talks between Russia and the US would happen "very, very soon".

The Syrian civil war began with an uprising against the government but has since splintered into various rebel groups fighting President Assad's forces and also each other.

According to reports from activists and other sources, Russia's latest air strikes hit sites in the north-west held by a rebel alliance called the Army of Conquest, as well as areas in Homs and Hama provinces.

The strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour was hit, as well as areas in Idlib province and Hama province further south, according to Lebanon's al-Mayadeen TV.

Rebel activists also reported strikes at Ghantu in Homs province, close to some of Wednesday's attacks.

The commander of a US-trained rebel group said one of its training camps had been hit by two Russian sorties on Thursday.

Hassan Haj Ali, of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal group, told Reuters news agency that about 20 missiles had hit their camp in Idlib province.

He said the Russian jets were identified by former Syrian air force pilots who are now members of his group.

The Russian defence ministry said civilian areas were not targeted, although the Syrian opposition says the strikes have killed civilians.

- BBC

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