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Kerry accuses Russia of targeting 'legitimate opposition' in Syria

US Secretary of State urges Moscow to change its targeting strategy, and says five-year war has reached critical moment
Kerrysaid decisions made in the coming days could end the war in Syria or prolong a conflict that "shows no signs of burning itself out" (AFP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday accused Russia of attacking "legitimate opposition groups" in Syria and called on Moscow to change its targeting strategy in its air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry said that changes to Russia's air campaign were critical to the success of an internationally agreed proposal for a cessation of hostilities within a week between pro-government forces and some Syrian opposition groups.

"To date, the vast majority of Russia's attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups," said Kerry, speaking at an international security conference in Munich.

"To adhere to the agreement it made, we think it is critical that Russia's targeting change."

Russia has supported Assad against rebel forces whom it collectively labels "terrorists," while the US has provided some support to some rebels it terms "moderate" and called for Assad to leave power.

Friday's agreement called for a "cessation of hostilities" within a week and for greatly increased humanitarian access, but it excludes the Islamic State group and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which fights alongside some more moderate factions in the north of the country.

Russia was also criticised at the same conference on Saturday by French Prime Minister Manual Valls, who told his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in a head-to-head debate that Moscow needed to stop bombing civilians.

"France respects Russia and its interests ... But we know that to find the path to peace again, the Russian bombing of civilians has to stop," said Valls.

Medvedev denied that Russia was bombing civilians and said it was protecting its national interests in Syria.

"There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this," he said. "Russia is not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria. We are simply trying to protect our national interests." 

Medvedev also accused Western powers of fuelling a new "cold war".

"Almost every day we are accused of making new horrible threats either against NATO as a whole, against Europe or against the US or other countries," he said.

Kerry said there was still a lot of work to do before the proposed ceasefire in Syria could come into effect, and said the five-year war, which  has claimed more than 250,000 lives, had reached a critical moment.

"This is the moment. This is a hinge point," he said. "Decisions made in the coming days and weeks, and a few months could end the war in Syria – or could define a very difficult set of choices for the future."

He added: "The war in Syria has now lasted for almost five years – and shows no signs of burning itself out – which is why we are so focused on a political track.  

"If the international community and the Syrians themselves miss the opportunity now before us to achieve that political resolution to the conflict, the violence, the bloodshed, the torture, the bombing, and the anguish will continue - so will the siren call to jihad."

Syrian pro-government forces backed by Russian air strikes have advanced in many areas of the country in recent weeks, reclaiming territory from rebels in Latakia province and surrounding the northern city of Aleppo, from where tens of thousands of people have fled into rebel-held territory near the Turkish border.