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Russia airstrike on Homs kills 36 civilians: Syria opposition

Russia denies hitting civilians, saying it targeted Islamic State in first foreign military engagement since occupation of Afghanistan
File photo shows destruction in the northern Syrian city of Idlib following government airstrikes on 15 April 2015

NEW YORK, United States - A Russian airstrike killed 36 civilians, including five children, in the central Syrian province of Homs on Wednesday, the head of Syria's main opposition group said.

"The Russians struck northern Homs today and killed 36 innocent people ... who fought against extremism," said Khaled Khoja, head of the National Coalition, in an interview with AFP.

The opposition had received the names of all 36 victims, including five children from Homs, and were waiting detailed reports from elsewhere after a total of 20 strikes were carried out, Khoja said.

"All of the casualties were civilians," Khoja said in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

"So it was very obvious that the Russian intervention was to support the regime, to support more killings inside Syria, and will create a more chaotic atmosphere," he added.

Russia, however, has denied reports that it failed to target Islamic State sites.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday morning that the allegations were "completely untrue".

In a statement issued later in the day, the Kremlin said the strikes had targeted "a known list of terrorist organisations agreed upon with the Syrian government," stressing that the funding for the bombing had come solely from Russia and had not been supported by Assad's government.

Russian warplanes carried out strikes in three Syrian provinces along with government aircraft on Wednesday, its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

The Syrian Coalition said in a statement that it "strongly condemns the brutal bombing carried out by Russian warplanes on civilian targets in rural Homs and rural Hama, causing civilian casualties; including women and children.

"While this aggression by Russia is not justified, violates Syria’s sovereignty and is illegal, it calls to question Moscow's international commitments, including the commitment to the Geneva I Communique, which prohibits the escalation of violence and calls for taking action to reduce violence," the statement said.

It also mentioned reports that Russia was "in preparation for a ground operation" - although President Vladimir Putin has insisted that putting Russian troops on the ground in Syria is not on the table.

"This will be air support without any participation in the ground operations," Putin said earlier on Wednesday.

The Russian leader had spoken of cooperation during a meeting on Monday with US President Barack Obama.

Khoja said that Russia was being duplicitous, having recently spoken of a diplomatic solution.

"The Russians were talking about political settlement but it's clear now that they were using their political approach in order to cover military intervention in Syria," Khoja said.

"Today's strike showed that the Russians were lying to us," he said.

Russia and US call urgent talks

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia later on Wednesday called urgent military talks to head off the risk of clashes between their forces, after Moscow's airstrike.

The Americans complained that the US-led coalition had only been given a heads-up by a Russian general in Baghdad one hour before the bombing began.

But, after sharp public comments in Washington and the United Nations, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov put a brave face on the dispute.

Appearing together on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, they said they would hold "de-confliction" talks and had drawn up proposals to relaunch a Syrian political peace process.

"We agreed on the imperative of as soon as possible - perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible - having a military-to-military de-confliction discussion," Kerry said.

Lavrov agreed their talks had been useful and both men said they would take their ideas for the political process back to their respective presidents.

But the narrow agreement to seek a mechanism to avoid accidental encounters between Russian and US-led forces could not disguise the deep divisions Moscow's actions had revealed.

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