Russia has conducted the first airstrikes in Syria against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
The strikes reportedly hit rebel-controlled areas of Homs and Hama provinces, causing casualties.
The US says it was informed an hour before they took place.
Russian defense officials say aircraft targeted the Islamic State (ISIS) group, but an unnamed US official told Reuters that so far they did not appear to be targeting ISIS-held territory.
Syria’s civil war has raged for four years, with an array of armed groups fighting to overthrow the government.
The US and its allies have insisted that President Bashar al-Assad should leave office, while Russia has backed its ally remaining in power.
The upper house of the Russian parliament granted President Vladimir Putin permission to deploy the Russian air force in Syria.
The Russian defense ministry said the country’s air force had targeted ISIS military equipment, communication facilities, arms depots, ammunition and fuel supplies.
A Syrian opposition activist network, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said Russian warplanes hit five towns – Zafaraneh, Rastan, Talbiseh, Makarmia and Ghanto – resulting in the deaths of 36 people, including five children.
None of the areas targeted were controlled by ISIS, activists said.
In a TV address, President Vladimir Putin said the air strikes were targeting Islamist militants – including Russian citizens – who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq.
“If they [militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” he said.
Vladimir Putin added that Russia was not going to send ground troops to Syria, and that its role in Syrian army operations would be limited.
“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict… we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.”
Vladimir Putin also said he expected President Bashar al-Assad to talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but clarified that he was referring to what he described as “healthy” opposition groups.
A US defense official said: “A Russian official in Baghdad this morning informed US embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL [ISIS] missions today over Syria. He further requested that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions.”
State department spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL [ISIS].”
Two suicide attacks in the Syrian province of Hama killed at least 18 people, including 11 children, state media has reported.
It said the “terrorist explosions” took place in Jibrin – north-east of Hama city – and al-Humeiri.
The villages are under the control of the government.
The attack comes days after scores of people were killed and injured in explosions in government-controlled parts of the central city of Homs.
There has so far been no claim of responsibility for the bombings, correspondents say, but al-Qaeda affiliated rebels of Al-Nusra Front have carried out several car bombings in recent weeks.
Human rights groups say that both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting to depose him are killing civilians.
Human rights groups say that both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting to depose him are killing civilians (photo Reuters)
Hama saw some of the largest demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad in the first months of the Syrian uprising after March 2011.
In late summer 2011, security forces stormed the city and have maintained control ever since.
Hama’s main city occupies a significant place in the history of modern Syria.
In 1982, then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, sent in troops to quell an uprising by the Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Tens of thousands were killed and the city flattened.
The violence in Hama province comes as the government subjects rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo to fierce aerial bombardment as its forces try to end a long-standing stalemate in the city.
On Thursday at least 33 people were killed in an air strike on a market in the northern Halak district of the city.
The strike outraged The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which described it as the “latest wave of indiscriminate attacks perpetrated against schools and other civilian targets” across Syria.
A suicide truck bomb has killed at least 30 people in the central Syrian city of Hama.
State news agency Sana said Syrian rebels had driven a truck laden with over a tonne of explosives into a government checkpoint on a busy road.
The explosion appears to have set ablaze a nearby petrol tanker, increasing the damage and casualties.
A suicide truck bomb has killed at least 30 people in the central Syrian city of Hama
According to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front carried out the attack.
“A man detonated a truck laden with explosives at a checkpoint near an agricultural vehicles company on the road linking Hama to Salamiya,” the Observatory said.
It said the attack had targeted government soldiers, but that most of the dead were civilians.
Pictures on Syria TV showed firemen battling to contain fires as black smoke rose from charred trucks and cars.
Hama saw some of the largest demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in the first months after the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
But in late summer 2011, security forces stormed the city and have maintained control ever since.
Hama occupies a significant place in the history of modern Syria. In 1982, then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, sent in troops to quell an uprising by the Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Tens of thousands were killed and the town flattened.
Ignatius IV (Hazim), the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Syria, has died in neighboring Lebanon at the age of 92.
Syria’s state news agency, Sana, reported that Patriarch Ignatius died in Beirut’s St George’s hospital on Wednesday after suffering a stroke.
His remains would be brought from Lebanon to Syria for burial, it added.
Ignatius had led the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East, the largest Arab Christian Church in the Middle East, since 1979.
There are believed to be about a million members, the majority of whom are Syrians.
The Church is one of 14 autocephalous (ecclesiastically independent) Eastern Orthodox patriarchates, third in honorific rank after the churches of Constantinople and Alexandria.
Since the 14th Century, the patriarch has resided in Damascus.
Ignatius IV Hazim, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Syria, has died in neighboring Lebanon at the age of 92
Patriarch Ignatius was born in 1920 in the village of Murhada, near Hama.
In 1961, he was ordained Bishop of Palmyra, in central Syria. Nine years later, he became Metropolitan of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast.
Syria’s minority Christian community has not joined the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. Many Christians are fearful for their future if the country’s majority Sunni Muslim community chooses an Islamist leadership to replace decades of secular rule.
Fighting in Syria has become so widespread that the conflict is now in effect a civil war, says The Red Cross (ICRC).
The change in status means combatants will now be officially subject to the Geneva Conventions, leaving them more exposed to war crimes prosecutions.
The Red Cross had previously regarded only the areas around Idlib, Homs and Hama as war zones.
Meanwhile, Syrian officials are disputing claims that they used heavy weapons in fighting on Thursday.
Activists initially described fighting in the village of Tremseh near Hama as a massacre of dozens of civilians, but later accounts suggested most of the dead were armed rebels.
Fighting in Syria has become so widespread that the conflict is now in effect a civil war
The UN accused Syrian forces of using heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters, but Damascus denied those allegations and said just two civilians had been killed.
The accusations, if proved, would mean Damascus had broken an agreement it made with envoy Kofi Annan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions, said fighting had now spread beyond the three hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama.
Spokesman Hicham Hassan said Syria was now regards as a “non-international armed conflict”, which is the technical term for civil war.
“What matters is that international humanitarian law applies wherever hostilities between government forces and opposition groups are taking place across the country,” he said.
The statement is significant because it is the Red Cross’ job to monitor the conduct of the fighting, and to tell warring parties what their obligations are.
Under the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on medical personnel or the destruction of basic services like water or electricity are forbidden and can be prosecuted as war crimes.
From now on, all those fighting in Syria are officially subject to the laws of war, and could end up at a war crimes tribunal if they disobey them.
Last month, the UN’s head of peacekeeping Herve Ladsous also said Syria was in a state of civil war.
And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has previously said the country is in a state of war.
Some 16,000 people are thought to have been killed since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011.
UN diplomats are attempting to agree a way forward for the organization’s monitoring mission in the country.
The mission’s mandate runs out on Friday, and Western nations are trying to get Russia and China to agree to a beefed-up resolution authorizing sanctions.
Syrian activists say at least 70 people have been killed in an attack on a house in Hama.
They said several houses in the Mashaa at-Tayyar district in southern Hama were destroyed by a big explosion.
State media said 16 people died in the blast in a house used as a bomb factory by “armed terrorist groups”.
Meanwhile, a video has emerged which purportedly shows a man being buried alive by security forces, allegedly for sending material to TV stations.
The unnamed man, who is said to be a media activist, is seen pleading for his life as earth is shoveled over his head. He then goes silent.
The security forces are heard cursing him for receiving money for sending material to Arabic satellite TV stations.
Syrian activists say at least 70 people have been killed in an attack on a house in Hama
The video was leaked by sympathizers.
Following the blast in Hama, activists posted video on the internet showing a scene of devastation, with bodies being pulled from the rubble.
One report said 13 children and 15 women were among the dead.
They said the blast was caused by government shelling or even a Scud missile attack.
State television showed pictures of injured children in hospital and says that a group using the house to make bombs detonated them accidentally.
The reports cannot be independently verified owing to government restrictions on foreign media.
Continuing violence has been reported across Syria since a ceasefire was introduced earlier this month – including in towns where UN observers are present.
There are two observers currently stationed in Hama.
France now says the Security Council should consider the use of force in Syria if a UN-backed peace plan proposed by international envoy Kofi Annan fails to stop the violence.
The plan calls on Damascus to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities.
The UN has sent a small advance team of observers to Syria. Last weekend the Security Council approved the deployment of another 300.
The UN says about 9,000 people have died since pro-democracy protests began in March 2011. In February, the Syrian government put the death toll at 3,838 – 2,493 civilians and 1,345 security forces personnel.
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