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Putin Sends Defense Minister to Damascus to Confer With Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus, June 18, 2016.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Saturday with the Russian defense minister in Damascus, while U.S. and Russian military officials held separate talks about Russia's attack on U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces this week.

Sergei Shoigu was the highest-ranking Russian official to travel to Syria since Moscow sent military forces into Syria nine months ago to support the Assad government. He said he went to Damascus as President Vladimir Putin's personal envoy.

Russian defense officials said Shoigu's agenda included "current questions of military and technical cooperation" between Moscow and Damascus and "cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups operating in Syria."

Months of Russian airstrikes have helped Syrian government forces advance against opposition fighters, but also have created another area of tension with the United States. Washington accuses Russia of targeting U.S.-backed moderate opposition groups more often than Islamic State terrorists.

The most recent Russian bombing runs hit Syrian opposition members Thursday at al-Tanaf, an area where Moscow's warplanes had not previously been active. Senior U.S. officials denounced the Russian action, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter complained Friday that Russian officers were not "properly" using a communications link set up to prevent unsafe air operations.

Hours after Carter spoke out, the Pentagon said Saturday that American and Russian military officers conferred by videoconference about Thursday's airstrike.

Syrian opposition groups and human rights activists contend Russia's airstrikes have caused hundreds of civilian deaths. They charge that indiscriminate attacks by Russian pilots have targeted civilian hospitals, schools and infrastructure with no connection to rebel military activity.