Russia's defense minister Wednesday expressed support for U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan but emphasized that everything should be done to ensure that innocent people are not hurt.

Sergei Ivanov said the truly guilty people should be punished in Afghanistan and, as he put it, "the strikes against the territory of Afghanistan must be surgical" to avoid any civilian casualties.

Speaking to Russia's upper house of parliament, the Russian defense minister reiterated Moscow's position that it would allow the United States to use its airspace for humanitarian flights. But Mr. Ivanov stressed this permission would not extend to allowing U.S. warplanes to use Russian airspace on their way to Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already given his strong support to the American campaign to force the Taleban to surrender Osama bin Laden, the man the U.S. says is responsible for the terrorist attacks in Washington DC and New York on September 11.

After the attacks, Mr. Putin announced a number of steps that his government was prepared to take to help the United States in its fight against terrorism, including increasing Russian military aid to the Northern Alliance.

This group, also known as the United Front, is the main Afghan opposition group fighting the Taleban. It controls roughly ten percent of the country, mostly in northern Afghanistan near Tajikistan, one of Afghanistan's northern neighbors.

Russian officials announced Wednesday that a group of high-ranking Russian generals has been sent to Tajikistan and neighboring Uzbekistan to discuss ways the Central Asian countries can work with Russia to fight terrorism.

President Putin has also said Russia will provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.