The Russian air force will keep hitting “IS” and al-Nusra Front units in Syria as the Russian pullout continues, a top military official has said. Meanwhile, the UN has warned of dire conditions on the ground.
Russian planes are backing a large offensive by Syrian regime troops against “Islamic State” (IS) in Palmyra, General Sergey Rudskoi told reporters on Friday.
“On average, Russian planes are flying 20 to 25 combat sorties each day,” the military official from the Moscow General Staff of the Russian Federation said.
The bombing raids come asRussia continues to reduce its presence in Syria, which was announced earlier this week.
“I want to emphasize that Russia’s air force will continue to conduct airstrikes against the terrorist organizations Islamic State and Nusra Front in Syrian territory,” Rudskoi added, saying that the withdrawal of forces was moving forward “according to schedule.”
US had denied Russian airstrikes
“It appears the Russians have conducted some air strikes after all in southern Syria in the vicinity of Palmyra in support of the Syrian regime,” US spokesman Patrick Ryder told Pentagon reporters on Friday, hours after telling reporters in a telephone briefing that Russia had carried out no air strikes during the past week.
During the call, Ryder initially said Russia had only carried out artillery strikes in the Palmyra region, citing that most Russian warplanes had been withdrawn from Syria.
“We assessed that the majority if not all of their strike aircraft have left,” Ryder told reporters in an earlier briefing, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim on Monday that the country would partially withdrawal forces from Syria.
The spokesman added that he had received updated information later in the day, and that his initial telephone briefing was made on information he had available at the time.
Ryder went on to say that Moscow has kept combat helicopters and transport planes in Syria and that little movement has been made by Russia ground forces.
IS says Russian soldiers killed
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Rudskoi also said that Syrian troops were close to taking control of Palmyra.
IS seized Palmyra in May last year, destroying many famous temples and monuments in the ancient city.
According to Rudskoi, the Syrian army has now seized key hilltops around the city and cut supply routes of the IS jihadists.
“Conditions have been created for the encirclement and definitive defeat of IS armed formations in Palmyra,” he said.
Also on Friday, IS claimed the killing of five Russian soldiers near the city.
The Kremlin refused to confirm the killing and any presence of Russian advisors around Palmyra.
“The advance (on Palmyra) is carried out by contingents of the Syrian army,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Amid famine, ‘Syrians eating grass’
Several regions in Syria are still rocked by heavy fighting, despite the fragile truce and the peace talks in Geneva.
On Friday, the UN World Food Program published a report on the plight of Syrians in the besieged cities of Deir al-Zor and Daraya, saying that many households were forced to get by on one meal per day.
Deir al-Zor is under IS siege, while Daraya is blocked off by government forces.
“In the most severe cases, they are enduring entire days without eating, sending children to beg and eating grass/wild vegetation,” the report said.
Fresh bread was “sporadically available” in Daraya, at 30 times the price in nearby Damascus, according to the report.
The Syrian government has so far refused to grant UN aid convoys access to Daraya and five more besieged areas.
dj,smm/kms (dpa, AFP, Reuters, Interfax)