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France says Russia 'sincere' in cooperation to fight IS

French foreign minister says 'we must bring together all our forces' in the fight against Islamic State militants
French Foreign minister Laurent Fabius (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Berlin on 12 September 2015 (AFP)

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday that Russia was sincere in wanting to cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria.

"There is an opening, so to speak, with the Russians. We think they are sincere and we must bring together all our forces," Fabius told France Inter radio.

Relations between France and Russia have deteriorated since last year's Ukraine crisis.

But both countries have suffered major terror attacks at the hands of IS in recent weeks - the coordinated gun and bomb attacks last Friday in Paris, and the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt last month.

President Francois Hollande called this week for the "bringing together of all those who can realistically fight against this terrorist army in a large and unique coalition," while his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin ordered his navy in the Mediterranean to establish contact with its French counterparts and work together "as allies".

Since Sunday, Russian and French raids have struck arms depots, barracks and other areas in Raqqa city, IS's stronghold in northern Syria.

"This is where we must hit Daesh, in its lifeblood," said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, using the Arabic acronym for the group.

A preliminary death toll from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said 72 hours of strikes "left 33 dead and dozens wounded in IS ranks".

Russia said its air force had destroyed some 500 fuel trucks in the past few days as they transported oil from Syria to refineries in Iraq, a key part of IS financing.

Russia on Wednesday also submitted a revised draft UN resolution calling for closer international cooperation against IS in Syria, parts of which the militants group rules under its self-proclaimed "caliphate" that also straddles Iraq.

Aktham Alwany, a journalist and activist from Raqqa, said civilians in the city were "only moving around when necessary" out of fear of strikes by "whichever nationality - Russian, regime, coalition".

"Unfortunately, it's no secret that IS's bases are inside civilian homes. There are some bases that look like they're for IS, but in reality they're empty fakes, while civilian homes are teeming with them," Alwany told AFP.

Raqqa was Syria's first provincial capital lost by the government, seized by rebels in 2013 then overrun by IS in January last year. At least 300,000 people live there now, according to analyst Fabrice Balanche.

Despite their diametrically opposed stances on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, France and Russia agreed to coordinate their military and security services to fight IS after the attacks in Paris and the downing of the Russian airliner. 

And US President Barack Obama praised Russia as a "constructive partner" in international talks in Vienna aimed at reaching a solution to Syria's bloody conflict, which has cost 250,000 lives over more than four years. 

Russia partner in 'egregious' assault on healthcare facilities

France's renewed declaration of its intent to co-operate with Russia came just hours after an international rights group accused Moscow of taking part in "one of the most egregious" assaults against healthcare facilities the world has ever seen.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a New York-based NGO that has worked since 1986 to document human rights abuses, released a report on Wednesday titled "Aleppo Abandoned: A Case Study on Health Care in Syria".

According to the report, nearly 700 medical personnel were killed since the start of the war in 2011 and October 2015, with 329 attacks on medical facilities.

The group documented 10 Russian attacks on medical facilities in Syria last month alone. PHR also recorded six other attacks on medical centres - five of which were carried out by either Russian or Syrian forces and one car bomb attack by an unknown group. The additional strikes brought the total to 16, making it the worst month for attacks on medical facilities since the conflict began.

Russian ground forces in Syria?

A map shown by the Russian military on state television appears to show that some Russian artillery contingents could be operating on the ground in central Syria's Homs region.

Russia has servicemen at bases in government-held Syria helping to conduct an air campaign in support of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad but denies it has deployed ground troops.

The detailed map shown in footage during a defence ministry briefing with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday showed acronyms for Russian contingents near areas where the regime is conducting an offensive against militants.

The diagram, shown to Putin on a large screen and filmed by state television, apparently showed that several 152mm-calibre Msta (2A65) howitzers of the 120th artillery brigade are deployed close to the town of Sadad, about 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of Homs.

A Syrian military source told AFP only that "there are Russian counsellors in Sadad advising the Syrian army on the artillery."

The 120th artillery brigade is based in Russia's Kemerovo region.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday reiterated Moscow's consistent denial that it has deployed any ground troops in Syria. 

"There is a technical contingent linked to ensure the operation of the Russian air force," Peskov said.  

"There are no ground troops there and Russia soldiers are not conducting a ground operation there," Peskov said.

He said he was not a "specialist of military maps" and directed all questions on the one shown on television to the defence ministry.

Russia's defence ministry did not reply to repeated requests from AFP to commment.

Russia has been bombing targets in Syria since 30 September, and said it would step up its air campaign. 

At Tuesday's briefing with Putin, the head of Russia's general staff Valery Gerasimov gave a detailed account of the ground offensive in Syria, saying it is conducted by both the Syrian army and pro-government militias.

"In the central part of the country, as a result of the offensive by government troops and militia contingents, it has become possible to take Khadat under control and block the militants in Maheen," he said, referring to a town southeast of Sadad.