Russian air strike kills Syrian rebel group leader
October 20, 2015 | 7:19 PM
by Reuters

Beirut/Ankara: Russian air strikes in Syria's Latakia province killed a rebel commander and four other fighters from a group armed by foreign countries, a spokesman for the group said on Tuesday.

The attack on Monday evening marked the third time Russian war planes have targeted the First Coastal Division group since Moscow began its air strikes in support of President Bashar Al Assad on September 30, the group's spokesman Fadi Ahmad said.

He said a further 15 civilians had been killed in the air strike in Jabal Akrad, a rural, mountainous area in the province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier put the death toll at 45 rebels and civilians.

The First Coastal Division is one of several groups that have received foreign military support including US-made anti-tank missiles, the most potent weapon in the rebels' arsenal.

The group, which fights under the umbrella of the "Free Syrian Army", confirmed the death of its chief of staff, Basil Zamo, formerly a captain in the Syrian military.

Ahmad said a fighter trained in the use of the anti-tank TOW missiles had also been killed. The Russian jets had struck one of the group's headquarters, and then struck the same target again after rescue workers had arrived on the scene.

"They have hit us three times now. They are hitting us on the grounds of IS, but they are hitting the ones who do them most damage - the Free Syrian Army," said Ahmad, speaking from the area via an internet messaging system.

Russia's air strike campaign in Syria has killed 370 people, one third of them civilians, since it started three weeks ago, the Observatory said on Tuesday.

FSA groups, often led by former Syrian army officers, have widely been eclipsed by militants including the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and IS. Though they describe themselves as part of an army, they do not operate with a centralised command and control structure.

Some FSA groups have received support including military training by foreign countries.

The commander of another such group, the Nour Al Din Al Zinki Brigades, was killed in fighting south of Aleppo on Monday.

The Syrian army backed by foreign fighters have launched a series of ground offensives against insurgent-held areas of western and northwestern Syria since Russia began air strikes in the country.

Meanwhile, at least three Russians fighting alongside Syrian government forces were killed and several more wounded when a shell hit their position in the coastal province of Latakia, a senior pro-government military source said on Tuesday.

If confirmed, the deaths which occurred on Monday night would be the first known incident of Russians killed in Syria since Moscow began air strikes on September 30.

Syrian officials could not be reached for comment. Russia's defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, told Reuters that his sources in the area had confirmed the deaths of Russians, but did not have a figure. He said he believed they were not regular Russian forces but volunteers.

The pro-government source, who is familiar with military events in Syria, said that at least 20 Russians were at the post in the Nabi Younis area when the shell struck.

"It's a 90 per cent probability that the shell was fired by the militants," he told Reuters.

The Kremlin has said there are no Russian troops in combat roles in Syria, though it has said there are trainers and advisors working alongside the Syrian military, and forces guarding Russia's bases in western Syria. The Kremlin has said it is not undertaking any steps to recruit and deploy volunteer fighters.

in Ankara, two senior government officials said that Turkey is ready to accept a political transition in Syria in which Assad stays in symbolic power for six months before leaving office, and is discussing the plan with Western allies.

"Work on a plan for Assad's departure is under way... (Assad) can stay for six months and we accept that because there will be a guarantee of his departure," one of the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We have moved forward on the issue to a certain degree with the United States and our other allies. There is not an exact consensus on when the six-month period would begin, but we think it won't be too long."

The United States will put the proposal to Russia, one of the Turkish officials said, but it was not clear whether Moscow would entertain the idea.

European nations have struggled to find a common position on the role Assad should play in the solution of the Syrian crisis. France is keen to see Assad go as soon as possible, while Germany would prefer to have him involved in the transitional phase before he quits.

Britain wants Assad to leave power "at some point" as part of any deal by world powers to end the four-year-old conflict, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Tuesday.

Assad said in an interview with Iranian television aired on October 4 that it was not up to any foreign official to decide Syria's future, including any transitional period mooted.

"The future political system, and which individuals govern Syria, this is a decision for the Syrian people. That's why these statements don't concern us," he said.

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