Russia launches fresh air strikes on Syria, as Kremlin rejects criticism from the West

A handout frame grab taken from a video footage on the official website of the Russian Defence Ministry on Oct 1, 2015, shows strikes carried out by Russian warplanes located at the Syrian airfield Hmeymim against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
A handout frame grab taken from a video footage on the official website of the Russian Defence Ministry on Oct 1, 2015, shows strikes carried out by Russian warplanes located at the Syrian airfield Hmeymim against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, on Sept 30, 2015.PHOTO: EPA/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY

BEIRUT (AFP) - Fresh Russian air strikes on Thursday (Oct 1) on targeted bases held by a powerful Islamist rebel coalition including Al-Qaeda's affiliate in north-west Syria, a Syrian security source said, as Russia on the same day rejected the accusations its air strikes targeted Syrian government rebels instead of militants.

But Russia said on Thursday that its warplanes had bombed "four Islamic State targets" in Syria overnight, including a command centre and weapons depot.

The airforce "destroyed the headquarters of terrorist groups and a weapons warehouse in Idlib area and a command centre... in Hama region", the Defence Ministry said in a statement. A car bomb factory north of Homs was also destroyed, it said.

"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 Syrian security source however said, adding that arms depots held by "armed groups" in neighbouring Hama province were also targeted.

The Army of Conquest has seized all of Idlib province and has advanced west towards Latakia, the stronghold province of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The alliance is also fiercely opposed to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Russia insists it is targeting.

On Twitter, a member of the Army of Conquest said "the alliance of Russian pigs launched its operations... by destroying a mosque in Jisr al-Shughur and flattening it".

Russia launched its first air strikes in war-torn Syria on Wednesday, striking opposition-held areas in the central provinces of Homs and Hama.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Russian military has only struck "terrorist groups", but France and the United States immediately expressed doubts that Moscow was targeting ISIS.

Russia on Thursday rejected the accusations its air strikes in Syria targeted moderate rebels fighting Mr Assad instead of ISIS militants, as it prepared for urgent military talks with the United States to head off possible clashes.

Senior US officials had expressed alarm after Russian warplanes began their first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

Mr Lavrov challenged the United States to provide proof that Russia's operation was not targeting "terrorists", and dismissed accusations by the Syrian opposition that it had caused civilian deaths.

US officials had accused Moscow of inflaming the four-year war in Syria and expressed doubt that Russia - a close ally of Mr Assad - was attacking ISIS targets.

"The rumours that the target of these air strikes was not ISIS positions are unfounded," Mr Lavrov told journalists in New York after meeting his US counterpart John Kerry.

"They (the American side) expressed doubt, arguing that there is evidence, which we asked them to show us, because we stand by our targets," he said, in the comments released by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.

"Talk began that civilians were hurt by air strikes. We have no such data," he added. "We carefully make sure that these targeted strikes are precise."

The head of Syria's main opposition group accused Moscow of killing 36 civilians in the central province of Homs, while US officials said it appeared the strikes were not in ISIS-controlled territory.

The defence ministry in Moscow said for its part that Russian fighter jets carried out 20 sorties and struck "eight Islamic State targets" including a command post in the mountains.

Washington complained that Moscow gave only an hour's notice of the strikes but the two sides seemed to put a brave face on the dispute and were preparing to hold military talks on the situation, perhaps as soon as Thursday.

"We agreed on the imperative of as soon as possible - perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible - having a military to military de-confliction discussion," Mr Kerry said on Wednesday, appearing with Mr Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Russian senators on Wednesday voted behind closed doors to unanimously approve intervention in Syria after Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Assad needed Moscow's help in fighting terrorists.

The decision followed weeks of military buildup by Russia in Syrian government-controlled territory.

It remained unclear how much of the opposition fighting Mr Assad's army - including the moderate opposition supported by the West - is considered by Moscow as a potential target.

Speaking to Russian news agencies late Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow was helping Syria to fight ISIS and "other terrorist and extremist groups".

When asked whether Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed moderate rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS, is on Moscow's list of terrorist groups, Mr Peskov said: "Does it exist, the Free Syria Army? Haven't most of them switched to ISIS?"

"What is the Free Syrian Army, is it an official term? Are they official forces? It existed but whether it does now nobody knows for sure, it's a relative concept."

Russia's Kommersant daily on Thursday quoted a military source as saying that the Russian deployment includes Su-24M and Su-34 bombers, Su-30 fighter jets and Mi-24 combat helicopters, some of which flew in on Sept 18 as a transport escort.

Six bombers reached Syria circumventing Azerbaijan and flying over the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq.

Russia and the West are in deep disagreement over Syria, with Moscow backing Mr Assad while Western powers blame him for starting what has become a brutal war with more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.

France on Wednesday launched an inquiry into Mr Assad for alleged "crimes against humanity" including kidnappings and torture.

Moscow however has never condemned Mr Assad for civilian deaths and argues that he must be part of the political solution to the conflict.

"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," Mr Lavrov said.

The Russian media has been portraying the Assad regime as the only force heroically stopping the spread of the brutal ISIS, therefore requiring Russian help.

The Rossiya state television channel said Thursday that Syria's military is "launching an offensive in northern Homs where over 5,000 militants are hiding".

Russian pilots will help Syrian military pinpoint fortifications of "terrorists" and radicals, the report said, featuring combat footage from drones and images of Syrian soldiers shooting.

"Most of the moderate opposition rebels supported by Washington are switching to the side of the Islamists," it said.