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Putin: Russia Has Supported Free Syrian Army


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov at a meeting with top military officials in the National Defense Control Center in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 11, 2015.

The United States says it cannot confirm Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim that Russia is now supporting a Western-backed Syrian opposition group engaged in a joint operations with the Syrian army against Islamic State.

"What I can tell you is that it's unclear to us also," State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday. "I'm not in a position to validate the comments except to say ... the vast majority of airstrikes conducted by Russian military aircraft are against opposition groups to [Syrian President] Assad and not aimed at ISIL [Islamic State]."

Putin said his nation is now backing a leading Western-backed opposition group in joint operations with Syrian troops against Islamic State militants.

At a meeting with his top Defense Ministry officials Friday, Putin said for the first time that Russia has provided air cover, weapons and supplies to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has long been fighting the Syrian army.

If confirmed, this would represent a major policy shift for Russia, which has been accused by the U.S.-led coalition of striking moderate rebels in efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, instead of bombing Islamic State targets.

There has no confirmation from the Free Syrian Army, which has been bombed in past months by Russia.

Putin said Russian warplanes have provided air cover and supplies to both FSA and government forces, which have united in the fight against IS militants. He said several units totaling more than 5,000 troops are now engaged in an offensive against "terrorists" in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa.

Syrian-based extremists

The Russian president also said his country's military action in Syria is aimed at protecting Russia from Syria-based extremists. He said extremists pose a "clear threat" to Russia and recommended the military "immediately destroy" any targets threatening its forces in Syria.

In other news, a monitoring group said a series of truck bombs in a Kurdish-held town in northeast Syria has killed at least 22 people, including several women and a doctor.

Residents inspect damage at a site hit by one of three explosive trucks, in the YPG-controlled town of Tel Tamer, Syria, Dec. 11, 2015.
Residents inspect damage at a site hit by one of three explosive trucks, in the YPG-controlled town of Tel Tamer, Syria, Dec. 11, 2015.

The bombs went off near a health center and vegetable market in the town of Tal Tamer in Hasakeh province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based group, which has a network of contacts on the ground in Syria, said dozens were wounded in the late Thursday attacks.

Tal Tamer is controlled by Kurdish YPG forces, which have for months been battling Islamic State extremists in the area, with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

The YPG is one of the strongest Western-backed opposition forces to emerge in the fight against the Islamic State.

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