Moscow says nine of its jets joined Turkish air force in 'highly effective' bombing of Islamic State targets
Russia said its air force had joined Turkish jets for the first time on Wednesday to target Islamic State militants holding the town of al-Bab in northern Syria, evidence of increasingly close co-operation between Moscow and Ankara.
Russia and Turkey are the main organisers of a new round of Syrian peace talks due to take place in Kazakhstan on 23 January and have set aside their differences over the political fate of President Bashar al-Assad to try to forge a wider Syria deal.
Moscow backs Assad, while Ankara has diluted its demands for the Syrian leader to urgently step down as part of what some sources say is a backroom deal aimed at dividing Syria into informal zones of regional power influence.
Lieutenant-General Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian defence ministry official, said nine Russian and eight Turkish jets had together struck targets in al-Bab, which is located about 40km northeast of Aleppo.
"Today the Russian and Turkish air forces are conducting their first joint air operation to strike Islamic State in the suburbs of al-Bab, in the province of Aleppo," Rudskoi said.
"The assessment of the initial results of the strikes against IS terrorists showed the joint activity of Russian and Turkish air groups were highly effective."
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wants Turkish-backed rebels to capture al-Bab to prevent Kurdish militias from doing so.
Rudskoi said the joint mission had been conducted in agreement with the Syrian government.
He said the Russian air force was also providing air support to Syrian government troops trying to fight off an Islamic State assault around the town of Deir al-Zor.
The town's civilian population could be massacred if Islamic State took Deir Ezzor, he said.
Russian jets were also backing a Syrian army offensive near the town of Palmyra, said Rudskoi, who added that Islamic State militants were planning to blow up more of the ancient city's historical monuments since they recaptured the historic town in December.
"We have received information, confirmed by several sources, that a large amount of explosives has been brought into the Palmyra area and that the terrorists plan on destroying the city's world-class historical legacy," he said.
Significant numbers of Islamic State militants fleeing the US-led coalition offensive against Mosul in neighbouring Iraq were streaming into Syria "almost unobstructed," Rudskoi said.