Russia strikes IS stronghold in Syria ahead of Putin talks
Russia said Friday it had bombed the Islamic State stronghold of Raqa in Syria as President Vladimir Putin faced Western leaders for the first time since starting the bombing campaign, amid mounting criticism of the strikes.
Russia's defence ministry said it carried out air strikes Thursday on "an IS training camp... and on a camouflaged command post... southwest of the town of Raqa".
"As a result of the strikes, the IS command point was put out of action. The infrastructure used to train terrorists was completely destroyed," Moscow said.
The attack on the jihadists could be used by Putin, who arrived in Paris for talks with the leaders of France and Germany, to counter growing Western scepticism of what exactly Russia is targeting in Syria.
Russia insists it is bombing IS jihadists and other groups, but the US and Western nations believe it is trying to shore up its long-time ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Members of the US-led coalition on Friday urged Moscow to stop targeting Syrian opposition forces.
"These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation," seven countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States said in a statement published on the website of the Turkish foreign ministry.
"We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians," added the statement.
- 'Three to four months' -
Putin has come to Paris for a peace summit on the Ukraine conflict, but Russia's dramatic intervention in Syria looks set to dominate as he holds one-on-one talks with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ahead of the talks, a Putin ally and senior lawmaker warned the Russian air strikes will last for three to four months and will increase in intensity.
"There is always a risk of getting bogged down but in Moscow they're talking about three to four months of operations," Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia's lower house of parliament, told France's Europe 1 radio.
Pushkov said more than 2,500 air strikes by the US-led coalition in Syria had failed to inflict significant damage on IS jihadists, but Russia's campaign would be more intensive.
"I think it's the intensity that is important. The US-led coalition has pretended to bomb Daesh (another name for Islamic State) for a year, without results.
"If you do it in a more efficient way, I think you'll see results," he said.
Pushkov refuted suggestions from Western nations that Russian planes were mainly bombing rebel groups opposed to Assad but not IS.
"The main target are the Daesh groups situated closest to Damascus," Pushkov insisted.
Russia's defence ministry said its second day of bombing had hit five IS targets, including a command post in northwest Idlib province.
But a Syrian security source said Thursday the strikes had targeted Islamist rebels that fiercely oppose IS, and US-backed rebel group Suqur al-Jabal said Russian warplanes attacked its training camp in Idlib.
Hollande expressed his concern at the choice of targets, saying whether it was the US-led coalition or Russia carrying them out the target must be IS.
"It is Daesh which must be targeted, not other groups," the French president said Thursday.
- 'It's a terrorist, right?' -
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Moscow was targeting the same terror groups as the US-led coalition, including IS and Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.
"If it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?" Lavrov said at the UN on Thursday.
France opposes Russia's support of Assad, whom Hollande accuses of instigating the chaos in Syria, where up to 250,000 people are believed to have been killed in four years of bloodshed.
Putin, on the other hand, believes Assad should be defended.
Russia also dismisses France's assertion that it was acting in self-defence in launching its own air strikes in Syria.
With the danger of Russian and US planes colliding or even clashing in the skies above Syria growing, the Pentagon and Russian officials held what the Americans said were "cordial and professional" discussions on Thursday in a bid to avoid mishaps between the two military powers.
The US-led coalition has been targeting IS for about a year and is carrying out near-daily air strikes in Syria.
Tensions have been running high at the UN where Russia and Iran, which both support Assad, have clashed with Western powers that argue removing him from power is vital to end Syria's bloody four-year civil war.
IS has taken advantage of the chaos to seize territory across Syria and Iraq, which it rules under its own brutal interpretation of Islamic law, and has recruited thousands of foreign jihadists to its cause.
- 'Information warfare' -
Putin has also rejected allegations that civilians had been killed in Russian raids, dubbing the reports "information warfare".
The Syrian conflict, which began after protests against Assad's regime in 2011, has escalated into a multi-sided war pitting multiple Islamist and secular groups against each other.
Meanwhile the US-led coalition said it had "not altered operations in Syria to accommodate new players on the battlefield", and a Pentagon spokesman said it had also conducted strikes in Syria in the past 24 hours.
© 2015 AFP