Russia fires cruise missiles at ISIL targets from Mediterranean

A Russian frigate and submarine have fired four cruise missiles from the Mediterranean at ISIL targets near Palmyra, its defence ministry said on Wednesday.

An undated handout video grab from the Russian Defence Ministry on May 31,2017 shows a Kalibr cruise missile being launched by Krasnodar submarine of the Russian Navy from the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian Defence Ministry released a statement saying that the Admiral Essen frigate and Krasnodar submarine of the Russian Navy conducted Kalibr cruise missiles strikes from the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea against ISIL targets near Palmyra, Syria.  Russian Defence Ministry/EPA
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MOSCOW // Russians warships in the Mediterranean Sea fired four cruise missiles at ISIL’s positions in Syria.

The strikes came as Syrian government troops pushed ahead in their offensive against the extremist group and militants in central and northern Syria.

Moscow said on Wednesday the Admiral Essen frigate and the Krasnodar submarine launched the missiles at ISIL targets in the area of the ancient town of Palmyra.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive for weeks in northern, central and southern parts of the country against ISIL and US-backed rebels under the cover of Russian airstrikes, gaining an area almost half the size of Lebanon.

Most recently, Syrian troops and their allies have been marching toward the ISIL stronghold of Sukhna, about 60 kilometres north-east of Palmyra.

The strategic juncture in the Syrian desert aids government plans to go after ISIL in Deir El Zour, one of the militants’ last major strongholds in Syria. The oil-rich province straddles the border with Iraq and is the extremist group’s last gateway to the outside world.

Russia, a staunch Damascus ally, has been providing air cover to Bashar Al Assad’s offensive on ISIL and other insurgents since 2015. Moscow had fired cruise missiles from warships in the past, as well as from mainland Russia against Mr Al Assad’s opponents.

As the fighting against ISIL militants is underway near Palmyra, Syrian troops clashed with US-backed rebels in the country’s south on Wednesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Mozahem Al Salloum, of the activist-run Hammurabi Justice News network that tracks developments in eastern Syria.

The fighting came days after the United States told Syrian government forces and their allies to move away from an area near the Jordanian border where the coalition is training allied rebels.

The warning comes less than two weeks after the Americans bombed Iranian-backed troops there after they failed to heed similar warnings.

Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Tuesday that the US dropped leaflets over the weekend telling the forces to leave the established protected zone.

Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes captured Palmyra in March last year and Moscow even flew in one of its best classical musicians to play a triumphant concert at Palmyra’s ancient theatre. ISIL forces, however, recaptured Palmyra eight months later, before Syrian government troops drove them out again in March this year.

Russia’s defence ministry said the strikes successfully hit ISIL heavy weapons and fighters whom the group who had deployed and moved to Palmyra from the ISIL stronghold of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the group and its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Moscow said it had notified the US, Turkish and Israeli militaries beforehand of the upcoming strike. It added that the Russian strike was promptly executed following the order, a testimony to the navy’s high readiness and capabilities.

Russia has been busy mediating between Mr Al Assad and Turkey and the West who seek his removal. Earlier this month Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to establish safe zones in Syria, signing on to a Russian plan under which Assad’s air force would halt flights over designated areas across the war-torn country. Russia says maps delineating the zones should be ready by June 4.

*Associated Press