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Russia fires missiles from warships, targets Islamic State positions in Syria

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<p>FILE- In this Aug. 2016 photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry press service, long-range Kalibr cruise missiles are launched by a Russian Navy ship in the eastern Mediterranean.</p>

FILE- In this Aug. 2016 photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry press service, long-range Kalibr cruise missiles are launched by a Russian Navy ship in the eastern Mediterranean.

FILE- In this Aug. 2016 photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry press service, long-range Kalibr cruise missiles are launched by a Russian Navy ship in the eastern Mediterranean.

Payton Potter

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By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Associated Press

MOSCOW — Russian warships in the Mediterranean Sea have fired four cruise missiles at the Islamic State group’s positions in Syria, the Russian defense ministry said Wednesday.

The announcement came as Syrian government troops pushed ahead in their offensive against IS groups and militants in central and northern Syria.

Moscow said in a statement the Admiral Essen frigate and the Krasnodar submarine launched the missiles at IS targets near the ancient town Palmyra. There was no information on when the missiles were launched.

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

Most recently, Syrian troops and their allies have been marching toward the IS stronghold of Sukhna, about 37 miles northeast of Palmyra.

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

Russia, a staunch Damascus ally, has been providing air cover to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s offensive on IS and other insurgents since 2015. Moscow fired cruise missiles from warships in the past, as well as from mainland Russia, aimed at attacking Assad’s opponents.

As fighting against IS militants is underway near Palmyra, Syrian troops clashed with U.S.-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, which tracks developments in eastern Syria.

The fighting came days after the U.S. 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 in that location after they failed to heed similar warnings.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Tuesday the U.S. dropped leaflets over the weekend telling the forces to leave the established protected zone.

In the northern city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the IS group, warplanes belonging to the U.S.-led coalition destroyed the main telecommunications center in the city, the IS-linked Aamaq news agency said. The Sound and Picture Organization, which documents IS violations, said land telecommunications were cut in most parts of the city after the center was hit.

The bombing came a day after U.S.-backed Syrian fighters reached the northern and eastern gates of Raqqa ahead of what will likely be a long and deadly battle. The city has been subject to intense airstrikes in recent days.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which is fighting IS in northern Syria, struck a deal with the group, offering it the safe corridor of Raqqa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. He added that soon after the Russian Defense Ministry had spoken about the agreement, some IS fighters started moving toward Palmyra.

The SDF has denied reports that it allowed IS fighters to leave the city.

“The Russian military spotted the movement and struck the convoy so it never reached Palmyra,” Lavrov said. “And so it will be in all situations when the IS is spotted anywhere on the Syrian territory. It’s an absolutely legitimate target along with all its facilities, bases and training camps.”

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 theater. IS forces, however, recaptured Palmyra eight months later, before Syrian government troops drove them out again in March this year.

Russia’s defense ministry said in its Wednesday statement that the strikes successfully hit IS with heavy weapons and fighters.

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

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

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Russia fires missiles from warships, targets Islamic State positions in Syria