Russia strikes Syria for third day as West warns of escalation
Russia carried out a third day of air strikes in Syria on Friday and said it had hit Islamic State's 'capital' as President Vladimir Putin faced mounting international criticism over his military campaign.
Moscow said it had bombed "an IS training camp" and a command post in the IS bastion f Raqa on Thursday, but on Friday it targeted rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The US-led coalition urged Russia to stop attacking Syrian opposition forces, warning that it risked escalating the four-year civil war that has already killed up to 250,000 people.
"These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation," seven countries including the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia said in a statement.
"We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians," it added.
Islamic State has seized control of large parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and is one of many groups fighting Assad.
Washington and its allies accuse Russia of using what Moscow insists is a campaign against "terrorists" as a pretext to bomb other more moderate groups that oppose Assad.
Some of the groups targeted have been supplied with training and weapons by the United States and its allies.
Several military sources and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Friday Russian air strikes had hit areas controlled by groups other than IS.
A security source said that "Russian planes conducted several strikes on military positions and command centres held by the Army of Conquest in Jisr al-Shughur... and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib".
The Observatory said at least 12 IS jihadists were killed in the Raqa attack on Thursday.
- 'Residents afraid' -
Activists and residents of Raqa said IS had cancelled Friday prayers and emptied mosques there, fearing more Russian strikes.
"The residents are very afraid, especially if the Russians are going to operate like regime planes by targeting civilians," said activist Abu Mohammad, who is from Raqa.
Speaking to AFP via the Internet, he said residents were staying indoors, and IS "has started to implement a plan to turn off electricity in a number of areas of the city when planes are overhead".
Putin held talks in Paris on Friday with the leaders of France and Germany, the first time he has met Western leaders since Russia began its dramatic intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Western nations including France say they are prepared to discuss a political solution with elements of the Syrian regime, but insist Assad must leave power.
Putin, on the other hand, says Assad -- Russia's long term ally -- should stay.
A French diplomatic source said Putin and President Francois Hollande had "tried to find common ground on their opinions on the political transition".
Ahead of the talks, a Putin ally and senior lawmaker said the campaign of 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, but Russia's campaign would be more intensive.
"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.
"The main target are the Daesh groups situated closest to Damascus," Pushkov insisted.
Syria's foreign minister said Damascus would take part in UN talks aimed at launching formal negotiations on ending its four-year war but will not be bound by their outcome.
Walid Muallem told the UN General Assembly that he understood the talks, proposed by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, to be "mainly to exchange ideas" and non-binding.
"I would like to announce here that Syria agrees to participate in the four brainstorming committees of experts proposed by the special envoy Staffan de Mistura," said Muallem.
The US-led coalition has been targeting IS for about a year and is carrying out near-daily air strikes in Syria.
© 2015 AFP