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US Military Official: Russian Airstrikes Benefiting IS


FILE - Two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth jets are seen flying in formation in a handout photo dated Aug. 4, 2010.

Some Russian airstrikes in Syria are benefiting Islamic State militants, a U.S. military official said Tuesday.

Russia, meanwhile, is worried that a recent U.S. airdrop of arms to Syrian rebels might end up benefiting the Islamic State.

Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters via teleconference from Baghdad that IS had taken advantage of the destruction created by “reckless and indiscriminate” Russian strikes.

“We’ve seen ISIL make progress based on Russian airstrikes around the Mara line, which is in the northwestern corner of Syria,” Warren said, referring to the Islamic State by one of its acronyms.

Ammo drop

The U.S. dropped 50 tons of ammunition to Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State forces near Raqqah, the militant group’s base, Warren said. The more than 100 dropped bundles included ammunition for assault rifles and machine guns, hand grenades and mortar rounds.

When asked by a reporter whether the ammunition was restricted for use against the Russians or the Syrian government fighters, Warren acknowledged that it is “difficult to put a restriction on a bullet,” but that the U.S. was supplying forces focusing on defeating the Islamic State.

“There are no Russians where that ammunition went,” he said.

“These forces are only in contact with ISIL, so we will help them. As far as other forces, frankly, the policy on that still needs a little bit of developing,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked what assurances the U.S. could give that the airdropped weapons would not fall into the hands of Islamic State fighters.

Deal near on flights

Also Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he expected an agreement "in very short order" with Russia on air safety above Syria to avoid a potential midair disaster between U.S. and Russian jets.

Russian and U.S. pilots carrying out separate airstrike missions in Syria came within 16 kilometers of each other last week, the Pentagon said. That was close enough for the pilots to clearly read the numbers on each other's planes.

"Even as we continue to disagree on Syria policy, we should be able to at least agree on making sure that airmen are as safe as possible," Carter said at a news conference in Boston. "Russia must act professionally in the skies over Syria and abide by basic safety procedures."

Later, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Department of Defense officials would be holding a third secure video conference Wednesday with officials from the Russian Defense Ministry. The focus of these discussions is on specific safety protocols for crews flying over Syria.

Carter said the U.S. mission to bomb Islamic State targets in Syria would not change, but he urged the Russians to give up what he called their "failing strategy," saying it was "wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted."

Russia said Tuesday that it had hit 86 "terrorist" targets in the previous 24 hours, according to the French News agency AFP — the highest one-day tally since Russia began bombing at the end of September.

Russian embassy hit

Also Tuesday, militants fired rockets at Russia's embassy in Damascus in what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called an "act or terror" meant to intimidate those who support the fight against Islamic State.

A Syrian man holds portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Valdimir Putin, as several hundred people gathered near the Russian Embassy in Damascus to express their support for Moscow's air war in Syria, Oct. 13, 2015.
A Syrian man holds portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Valdimir Putin, as several hundred people gathered near the Russian Embassy in Damascus to express their support for Moscow's air war in Syria, Oct. 13, 2015.

Two rockets struck the embassy compound while hundreds of people rallied outside in support of Russia. There was no word on damage or casualties.

The attack was not the only backlash against Russia. Russian security officials said Monday they had arrested several people plotting to target the Moscow transportation system who had ties to the Islamic State group.

'Eye for an eye'

An Islamic State spokesman posted an online message Tuesday "calling on Muslims everywhere" to launch a jihad against Russia and the U.S. "Russia will be defeated," IS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani said in a recording posted on line.

Also, in an audio recording released Monday, Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, the head of Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, urged militants in the Caucasus to counter Moscow's air campaign by targeting Russians.

"If the Russian army kills the people of Syria, then kill their people. And if they kill our soldiers, then kill their soldiers. An eye for an eye," al-Jolani said.

Meanwhile, U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura held talks in Russia on Tuesday as part of an effort to forge an understanding between Russian and U.S. officials and move toward a political process to end the Syrian conflict.

On Wednesday, De Mistura plans to fly to Washington for talks there as well.

State Department correspondent Pam Dockins contributed to this report.