BEIRUT • Russian warplanes unleashed a new wave of strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as Moscow and Washington prepared for urgent talks to avoid clashes between their forces.
The latest strikes came as Russian President Vladimir Putin hit back at allegations that civilians had been killed, describing the claims as "information warfare".
Yesterday marked the second straight day of Russian raids in Syria. On Wednesday, Moscow launched its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since its occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Lebanese sources said yesterday that hundreds of Iranian troops have also arrived in Syria to join the major ground offensive on behalf of Mr Assad's government, a further step in the rapid internationalisation of a civil war in which every major country in the region has a stake.
Moscow said yesterday it was also ready to consider expanding its new military campaign beyond Syria to launch air strikes in Iraq if Baghdad asks it to do so.
"If we get such a request from the Iraqi government or a Security Council resolution that depends decisively on the will of the Iraq government", Moscow would consider launching the strikes, senior foreign ministry official Ilya Rogachev, told the RIA Novosti state news agency.
Moscow, a key backer of Mr Assad, said its latest strikes in Syria yesterday had hit four targets linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group.
But a Syrian security source said they had targeted a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels which includes Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate and which is fiercely opposed to ISIS.
"Air strikes from four Russian warplanes struck bases held by the Army of Conquest in Jisr al-Shughur and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province," the source said, adding that arms depots held by "armed groups" in neighbouring Hama province were also targeted.
A member of the Army of Conquest, which controls Idlib province and has advanced west towards Mr Assad's coastal heartland of Latakia, said on Twitter that "Russian pigs" had flattened a mosque in Jisr al-Shughur.
Russia has rejected accusations its air strikes targeted moderate rebels fighting Mr Assad.
US Senator John McCain said yesterday that Russian warplanes had conducted strikes on groups "funded and trained by our CIA". He said the move showed Moscow's real priority was "to prop up" Mr Assad.
The head of Syria's main opposition group accused Moscow of killing 36 civilians in the central province of Homs on Wednesday.
Mr Putin dismissed the accusation. "When it comes to media reports regarding the suffering of the civilian population, we are ready for this information warfare," he said. "Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that we should not heed information like this."
A US-led coalition has carried out near-daily air strikes on ISIS in Syria for more than a year. The coalition said it had conducted one raid on Wednesday in the northern province of Aleppo, destroying two excavators used by ISIS.
Washington complained that Moscow gave only an hour's notice of the Russian strikes, but the two sides were preparing to hold military talks on the situation, perhaps as soon as yesterday.
It remains unclear how much of the opposition fighting Mr Assad's army - including the Western- backed moderate opposition - is considered by Moscow as a potential target. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to admit that Russia was targeting not only ISIS sites, saying it operates according to a list apparently agreed with the Syrian government.
Moscow has portrayed Mr Assad as the only force stopping the spread of ISIS and argues that he must be part of the conflict's political solution. "Life has shown that it is unrealistic to give ultimatums demanding that Assad leaves in a situation when the country is in such a crisis," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS