MOSCOW — The Russian military on Sunday rejected the Pentagon's accusations that it had deliberately targeted U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces, arguing the U.S. had failed to warn about their locations.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said the area targeted in the strike was more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from locations earlier designated by the U.S. as controlled by legitimate opposition forces.
The Pentagon said it held a video conference Saturday with the Russian military to discuss Russian air strikes Thursday on the At-Tanf border garrison, which targeted Syrian opposition forces fighting the Islamic State group.
"Russia's continued strikes at At-Tanf, even after U.S. attempts to inform Russian forces through proper channels of ongoing coalition air support to the counter-ISIL forces, created safety concerns for U.S. and coalition forces," it said in a statement.
Konashenkov retorted that the Russian military had warned the U.S. in advance about the planned strike, but the Pentagon had failed to provide coordinates of legitimate opposition forces, "making it impossible to take measures to adjust the Russian air force action."
He added that the Russian military had proposed months ago to share information about locations of various forces involved in military action in Syria to create a comprehensive map, but the Pentagon hasn't been forthcoming.
On a conciliatory note, he added that Saturday's video conference with the Pentagon was "constructive," reflecting a shared desire "to improve coordination in fighting terrorist organizations in Syria and avoid incidents while conducting military operations there."
The video conference was held as part of bilateral communication channels intended to prevent incidents in the crowded skies over Syria.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, second left, visits the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on June 18, 2016.
Photo Credit: Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service pool photo via AP
Russia has conducted an air campaign in Syria since last September, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces win back some ground. Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled back some of Russia's warplanes in March in what he described as a move to help encourage peace talks, but the military has maintained a strong presence at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Lattakia, Assad's Alawite heartland.
The Defense Ministry said Sunday that a Russian soldier has died of wounds he suffered in a militant suicide attack in Syria, the military's 11th casualty since the start of its campaign there.
Sgt. Andrei Timoshenkov was protecting an area where the Russian military was handing out humanitarian aid to locals in the Homs province on Wednesday and opened fire to stop a vehicle speeding up to the site. The car, rigged with explosives for a suicide attack, blew up, wounding the serviceman. He died the next day in a hospital, the ministry said.
On Saturday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Syria to meet Assad and inspect the Russian air base there. The Defense Ministry said the talks with Assad, which Shoigu conducted on Putin's directive, focused on cooperation between the two militaries and "some aspects of cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups."
A U.S.- and Russian-brokered cease-fire that began on Feb. 27 helped reduce hostilities for the first time in the five-year conflict, but fierce fighting has continued in many areas, particularly around Aleppo. The Islamic State group and the al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, have been excluded from the truce.
Russia and the U.S. have traded mutual accusations over the treaty. The U.S. accused Moscow of failing to prevent violations by Assad's forces, while Russia criticized the U.S. for its failure to encourage opposition groups it backed to pull out from areas controlled by Nusra.