ALEPPO (Syria) • Russia said it has sent an advanced missile system to the Syrian port of Tartus, as tensions escalate between Moscow and Washington over the five-year conflict.
The announcement came after Washington said it was suspending talks with Moscow aimed at reviving a ceasefire deal over Russia's support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On the ground, Mr Assad's forces on Tuesday advanced on rebels during intense street fighting in the opposition-held east of Aleppo city, which Russia has been accused of bombing indiscriminately including targeting its hospitals.
Meanwhile, the United Nations rights chief called for action to halt the "ghastly avalanche of violence" unfolding in Syria's second city, reeling from some of the most brutal fighting in the conflict.
Russia, which has denied its strikes have hit hospitals, said it was deploying the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria to protect its base at Tartous, Russia's only sea base on the Mediterranean.
"The S-300 is a purely defensive system and poses no threat to anyone," Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the Russian missile system would not affect operations in the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in northern Syria, and questioned why Moscow was making the move.
"Last I checked, the Russians said that their primary goal was to fight extremism, ISIL and Nusra, in Syria," he said, referring to ISIS and another group formerly known as Al-Nusra Front. "Neither one has an air force... So this is something we'll watch carefully. But it should be clear to the Russians and everybody else operating in Syria how seriously we take the safety of our air crews."
As well as operating the Tartus naval facility, Russia runs an air base outside the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, which currently houses warplanes used in its bombing campaign in support of its ally, Mr Assad.
In August, a Russian official said Moscow was planning to expand into a permanent military facility its Hmeimim air base, which already has an S-400 air defence system, its most modern equipment.
Amid the surge in tensions, Russia also said yesterday that two of its warships were heading back to join its forces in the Mediterranean after an earlier deployment off the coast of Syria that saw them carry out missile strikes on Aug 19.
Meanwhile, a UN expert said yesterday its analysis of satellite imagery of a deadly attack on an aid convoy near Aleppo last month showed that it was an air strike. At least 18 people were killed in the Sept 19 attack on the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy at Urem Al-Kubra that also destroyed 18 of 31 trucks, a warehouse and a clinic.
The United States had blamed two Russian warplanes, which it said were in the skies above the area at the time of the incident. Moscow denies this and says the convoy caught fire.
"We had an image of that and could clearly see the damage there. With our analysis, we have determined it was an air strike and I think multiple other sources have said that as well," Mr Lars Bromley, a researcher at the UN body Unosat, which collects and analyses satellite images.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon last week said he was setting up a board of inquiry into the bombing.
REUTERS, AGENCE-FRANCE PRESSE