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Russia ready to provide air support to moderate Syria rebels

Russia has announced that its air force in Syria is ready to provide support to the Free Syrian Army in its fight against "Islamic State." But Foreign Minister Lavrov stressed that his forces were still backing Assad.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to coordinate its air strikes in Syria closely with the United States. He stated that the Russian air force was prepared to support the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed opposition group battling Bashar al-Assad, the RIA Novosti agency reported.

"We are ready to also support patriotic opposition, including the so-called Free Syrian Army, from the air," said in an interview with the state-controlled Rossiya 1 television channel.

"The main thing for us is to approach the people fully in charge of representing these or those armed groups fighting terrorism among other things," the channel reported Lavrov as saying.

"We are ready for this coordination to be as deep as possible."

Still supporting Assad regime

Lavrov stressed that there needed to be parliamentary and presidential elections in Syria as part of any political settlement of the crisis, adding that he thought there was hope that progress could be made on a deal in the foreseeable future. He also reiterated that Russia expected the West to help Moscow in identifying areas controlled by the moderate opposition while building bridges with the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebels.

Lavrov highlighted that Moscow's backing for Assad remained strong despite what he described as "rumors" that the current talks were aimed at eventually easing him from power.

Joint military effort

Lavrov's comments came after he and his US counterpart John Kerry agreed after talks in Vienna on Friday to explore new ways of trying to reach a political settlement to the civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people since 2011.

Sergej Lavrov and Bashar al-Assad

The United States and other Western nations have criticised Russia's close relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Kerry told reporters on Friday that the

Vienna meeting,

which also included the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, had "succeeded in surfacing some ideas which I'm not going to share today but which I hope have a possibility of ultimately changing the dynamic."

Western countries have in the past accused Russia of targeting US-backed opposition groups in air strikes. But Moscow said their strikes were solely aimed at IS militants. Lavrov had said earlier in the week that the continued US refusal to

coordinate the air campaign in Syria with Moscow

was "a big mistake."

Assad in agreement

Lavrov said he felt other countries were beginning to better understand the situation in Syria from the Russian perspective. However, Russia's position in the crisis appeared to be shifting, with Moscow conceding that it was prepared to give military support to moderate anti-Assad opposition fighters in their rebellion against jihadists from the self-declared "Islamic State" (IS). Moscow, in talking about the Syrian opposition, had previously reserved the term "patriotic" or "healthy" for those groups that backed Assad against the rebels.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin had surprised observer by

hosting Assad for talks

at the Kremlin. It was the Syrian leader's first known foreign visit since the outbreak of unrest. After the meeting with Assad, Putin had said that they had discussed Russia's possible support for armed rebels in Syria.

Putin recounted that he had asked Assad what he would think of Russia supporting rebel forces in the same manner that it had been supporting the Syrian army. Putin said that Assad had viewed the suggestion "positively."

ss/rc (AFP, AP Reuters)

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