BEIRUT, Oct 1 : Russian warplanes unleashed a new wave of strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday, as Moscow and Washington prepared for urgent talks to avoid clashes between their forces.
It was the second straight day of Russian raids in Syria, where Moscow on Wednesday launched its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Russia, a key backer of Assad, said the latest strikes had hit four targets linked to the Islamic State jihadist group, which controls large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
But a Syrian security source said they had targeted a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels which includes Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate and which is fiercely opposed to IS.
"Air strikes from four Russian warplanes struck bases held by the Army of Conquest in Jisr al-Shughur and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province," the source said, adding that arms depots held by "armed groups" in neighbouring Hama province were also targeted.
A member of the Army of Conquest, which controls Idlib province and has advanced west towards Assad's coastal heartland of Latakia, said on Twitter that "Russian pigs" had flattened a mosque in Jisr al-Shughur.
In Moscow, the defence ministry said it had bombed "four Islamic State targets" in Syria overnight, destroying "the headquarters of terrorist groups and a weapons warehouse in Idlib area and a command centre... in Hama region."
A car bomb factory north of Homs was also destroyed, it said. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed off doubts by US officials that Russia was attacking IS targets.
"The rumours that the target of these air strikes was not IS positions are unfounded," Lavrov told journalists in New York after meeting his US counterpart John Kerry.
He asked the US to provide evidence "because we stand by our targets". The head of Syria's main opposition group accused Moscow of killing 36 civilians in the central province of Homs on Wednesday, but Lavrov denied any civilians were killed. Russia's defence ministry said fighter jets had carried out 20 sorties on Wednesday, striking "eight Islamic State targets" including a command post in the mountains.
Washington complained that Moscow gave only an hour's notice of the strikes, but the two sides were preparing to hold military talks on the situation, perhaps as soon as Thursday.
"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 on Wednesday, appearing with Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
After weeks of Russian military build-up in Syria, Russian senators on Wednesday unanimously approved armed intervention after Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Assad needed Moscow's help.
It remains unclear how much of the opposition fighting Assad's army -- including the Western-backed moderate opposition -- is considered by Moscow as a potential target. Speaking to Russian news agencies late Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was helping Syria fight IS and "other terrorist and extremist groups". ?AFP