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Leaders call on Russia to halt Syrian airstrikes against civilians, rebels

As Moscow maintains that it targets only IS and other militant groups, Syrian officials signal they will join UN talks
An image grab from a video released by the Homs Media Center on Wednesday after Russian and Syrian government airstrikes in Homs province (AFP)

In a rare joint statement, leaders of France, Germany, Qatar, Turkey, the UK and the US called on Friday for Russia to immediately cease its airstrikes on Syrian rebel fighters and civilians and concentrate on hitting Islamic State (IS) group militants.

"These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation," said the statement. The leaders expressed particular concern with Russian attacks on the Syrian provinces of Hama, Homs and Idlib on Thursday which the statement said did not target IS.

In a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande on Friday, Hollande also said he had reminded his Russian counterpart that airstrikes should "only hit" Islamic State militants. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking alongside Hollande after a summit in Paris on the Ukraine conflict that Putin also attended, said: "Both of us insisted on the fact that IS is the enemy that we should be fighting."

Moscow insists the strikes it began in Syria on Wednesday are targeting Islamic State and other militant groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and may last as long as four months, a Russian politician has said

The calls for IS-only Russian strikes come as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said in a UN speech on Friday that Syria is prepared to take part in UN talks that would precede formal negotiations to end the civil war.

Muallem told the UN General Assembly that he understood the talks to be "mainly to exchange ideas" and non-binding.

Later on Friday, US President Barack Obama warned that Russia's military engagement in Syria in support of Assad is a "recipe for disaster," though Washington could still work with Moscow on reducing tensions.

Putin "doesn't distinguish between ISIL and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go," Obama told reporters, referring to the IS group. "From their perspective, they're all terrorists, and that's a recipe for disaster."

Obama also acknowledged that the US train-and-equip programme to support Syrian rebel groups "has not worked the way it was supposed to". He said part of the reason it hadn't worked was it was difficult to get rebels to commit to fighting solely IS instead of Assad's forces.

Earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 12 IS members were killed when Russian warplanes hit Raqqa, the group's de facto capital in northern Syria, and the nearby Tabqa military airport. The strikes are believed to be the first against IS since Russian bombing began.

Activists and residents in the city said IS had cancelled Friday prayers and emptied mosques there fearing more Russian strikes. 

The Syrian National Coalition issued a statement condemning the continued Russian attacks, saying: "Numerous independent reports have cited tens of civilian deaths as a result of these airstrikes."

“The purpose and impact of Russia’s military intervention is clear. They are reinforcing Assad’s ongoing pursuit of all out military victory and further escalating the violence and war crimes being perpetrated on behalf of the Assad regime," the statement said.

A security source on the ground told AFP that Russian air attacks also targeted the Army of Conquest, the most powerful Islamist coalition battling Syrian government forces in the northwest.

Later on Friday, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that only one in 20 Russian air strikes in Syria have targetted IS.

British intelligence services observed that five percent of the strikes had attacked the IS group, with most "killing civilians" and Free Syrian Army forces fighting against the Assad government, Fallon told the Sun newspaper.

He said that Russia's intervention had further "complicated" the crisis, while suggesting that Britain should extend its own bombing campaign - currently only operational against IS in Iraq - to Syria.

"We're analysing where the strikes are going every morning," he told the paper. "The vast majority are not against IS at all.

"Our evidence indicates they are dropping unguided munitions in civilian areas, killing civilians, and they are dropping them against the Free Syrian forces fighting Assad."

Putin is "shoring up Assad and perpetuating the suffering," Fallon said. 

Russia's defence ministry in Moscow also said strikes were carried out on Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. 

Unverified reports indicate that hundreds of Iranian soldiers have arrived in Syria in the past 10 days to take part in a ground offensive that would compliment Russia's air fight. 

Analysts are concerned about this week's escalation, which many fear could further exasperate the war. An independent analyst told the Guardian that Qatar – acting with the agreement of Saudi Arabia – may already sent planeloads of weapons to Turkish airbases. 

“I would expect a huge influx of weapons into the north to try to blunt any ground assault by the regime,” the analyst said. “The stakes are very high.”