DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad welcomed Wednesday’s decision by Russia to send troops to his war-torn country, saying the military support from Moscow is the result of a Damascus request.
The development came as Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday for the first time. A U.S. defense official told The Associated Press that the airstrikes took place near Homs — Syria’s largest provinces that borders Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Russian lawmakers earlier Wednesday voted unanimously to let President Vladimir Putin send Russian troops to Syria. The Kremlin, however, sought to play down the decision, saying it will only use its air force in the Mideast country, not ground troops.
According to a statement by Assad’s office, the Syrian leader had sent a letter to his Russian counterpart, asking for the support. Assad’s Facebook page also reiterated that it “came upon a request from the Syrian state.”
Russia has been one of Assad’s strongest allies since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011. The civil war has killed more than 250,000 people and wounded a million, according to U.N. figures.
On the ground, Syrian activists said that air raids on the central provinces of Homs and Hama killed and wounded dozens of people on Wednesday.
An activist group known as the Local Coordination Committees claimed that the warplanes that carried out the air raids were Russian. It cited residents in the areas bombed as saying the explosions were much more powerful and accurate than those carried out by government warplanes.
However, Rami Abdurrahman, who heads another activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the air raids were carried out by government warplanes which Damascus had recently received from Moscow. He said the new warplanes were Russian-made Sukhoi and MiGs.
Abdurrahman added that he expects Russia will target militants from the former Soviet Union — whether they belong to the Islamic State group or al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The areas that were hit in the airstrikes in central Syria are not under the control the of the Islamic State group.
The LCC said dozens of people were killed and wounded in the air raids on Homs while the Observatory said 27, including six children, were died. The Observatory said towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Zaafaraneh were hit.
After the air raids, rebels shelled government-held neighborhoods in the city of Homs, killing at least one person and wounding seven, according to governor Talal Barrazi.
In Iraq, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadai said officials in Baghdad are in talks with the Russians about cooperation in the hope that shared intelligence “will further our abilities to defeat the terrorists that are within our borders.”
“We are focused on the situation in Iraq but we have no influence over the situation in Syria or over what takes place in Syria,” said Saad al-Hadithi. “The situation in Syria has had a major impact on Iraq.”
In Pakistan, analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said the Russian parliament’s move was aimed at endorsing Putin’s policies, adding that the Russian president seeks to protect Assad, his ally.
“The Russian parliament has endorsed what Putin has already been doing. But today’s move makes him stronger,” said Rizvi. “You will be seeing additional Russian troops on ground in Syria very soon.”
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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