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US, Russian Generals Meet to Discuss Deir El-Zour Tensions


FILE - A Russian military helicopter flies over a desert in Deir el-Zour province, Syria, Sept. 15, 2017.

American and Russia military leaders held an unprecedented, face-to-face meeting in recent days to discuss the increasing tensions around the Islamic State stronghold of Deir el-Zour, Syria, a coalition spokesman said Thursday.

U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the U.S.-led counter-Islamic State coalition, told reporters via video conference from Baghdad that the discussion between generals from both countries lasted more than an hour.

Dillon added that the coalition and Russian officers shared maps and other data on where their forces were battling in the area. The coalition has maintained that it is "deconflicting" with Russian forces to prevent unintended mishaps in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. However, the latest meeting left many reporters wondering how the exchange was not considered cooperation between the two countries' forces.

Russian forces are helping Syrian government forces battling to take Deir el-Zour province from Islamic State, while the coalition is backing Syrian Democratic Forces also trying to remove the terror group from the oil-rich province.

"Our partners have also made significant gains across northern Syria and are not ready to give that up" and allow IS to potentially come back in the area, Dillon said.

He added that Syrian government forces are in Deir el-Zour city proper, while SDF forces are in the surrounding province.

"There is a separation between the locations where they are fighting and where our partner forces are fighting," he said.

U.S. and Russian forces share at least three channels of communication, according to Dillon. U.S. and Russian air forces share a telephone communication line, U.S. and Russian ground forces share a telephone communication line, and U.S. and Russian commanders share a third line.

On Thursday, Russia admitted that it had deployed special forces with pro-government forces in the province and accused the SDF of firing on Syrian government forces in the area.

Russia's Defense Ministry warned that it would retaliate against any future strikes in the area.

"The firing positions in those areas will be immediately destroyed with all the arsenal at our disposal,'' Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

An SDF commander denied Russian accusations, saying at least 7 kilometers of IS-held territory separates them from the Syrian government troops.

The United Nations said the civil war in Syria has killed about 400,000 people in the country since fighting began nearly six years ago.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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