U.S. asks Russia to not hit al-Qaeda in Syria, Moscow says
This file image posted on the Twitter page of Syria's al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front on Friday, April 1, 2016, shows Nusra Front tank fires at Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen in the northern village of al-Ais in Aleppo province, Syria. (Al-Nusra Front via AP, File)
MOSCOW -- Russia's foreign minister said Washington has asked Moscow not to target the al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, but the U.S. insisted Friday that it only wants Russia to carefully select it targets to avoid hitting civilians and legitimate opposition groups.
Sergey Lavrov said that Russia has long insisted that the moderate, U.S.-backed opposition groups should leave the areas occupied by Nusra. He said in televised remarks that Russia and the U.S. have engaged in close dialogue on how to secure a cease-fire in Syria, but added that fighting the Islamic State group and Nusra should be a top priority.
"They are telling us not to hit it (Nusra), because there is 'normal' opposition next .. to it," Lavrov said. "But that opposition must leave terrorists' positions, we long have agreed on that."
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that he discussed the upsurge of violence in Syria in Friday's telephone conversation with Lavrov.
Kerry said the two talked for an hour and worked specifically on "ways to try to strengthen the enforcement and accountability for this cessation. We have good ideas but we're not there yet."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington, said that Kerry had emphasized the need for Russia to carefully distinguish between the IS and Nusra and legitimate opposition units.
"This is a common refrain, common theme that we've been conveying to the Russians over the past weeks," Toner said. "We obviously all agree that ISIL and the Nusra Front pose a real threat to the security on the ground in Syria."
At the same time, Toner noted that strikes against legitimate opposition forces and civilians only make people "more supportive of these terrorist groups and that is a dynamic we've seen play out in Syria for years now because of the regime's actions."
"Of course we support strikes focused solely on either Daesh or Al Nusra," he said. "But that a greater effort, a more complete effort needs to be made in order to distinguish between Al Nusra and the parties to the cessation."
Russia first set a deadline for Syrian opposition units to withdraw from areas occupied by Nusra, but then agreed to give them more time to pull out.
Despite a Russia- and U.S.-brokered truce in Syria that began on Feb .27, fighting has continued to rage in many areas, particularly around the city of Aleppo, trapping civilians in the cross-fire between government and opposition forces.
On Thursday, the Russian military flew one of the victims, 11-year old Sidra Zaarur, who lost both legs in the shelling of Aleppo in April for treatment in Moscow.
Bradley Klapper in Paris and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.