PARIS, Nov 17, (RTRS): France and Russia bombed Islamic State targets in Syria on Tuesday, punishing the group for attacks in Paris and against a Russian airliner that together killed 353 people, and made the first tentative steps toward a possible military alliance. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a coordinated onslaught in Paris on Friday and the downing of a Russian charter jet over Sinai on Oct 31, saying they were in retaliation for French and Russian air raids in Iraq and Syria. Still reeling from the Paris carnage that killed 129 people, France formally requested European Union assistance in its battle and British Prime Minister David Cameron edged closer to extending military action against Islamic State in Syria. Police investigating the worst atrocity in France since World War Two discovered two locations in Paris where they believe the militants launched their assault.
Underlining the widening scope of the probe, police in Germany said they had arrested seven suspects, including two women. Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on Nov 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls swathes of Syria and Iraq. A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants. Iran is Assad’s closest ally.
In Brussels, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian invoked the EU’s mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa. “This is firstly a political act,” Le Drian told a news conference after a meeting of EU defence chiefs. The 28 EU member states accepted the French request but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming. A manhunt was continuing in France and Belgium on Tuesday for one of the eight attackers in the Paris assault. French police staged 128 raids overnight in the hunt for accomplices and Islamist militant networks, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, adding that the investigation was making fast progress.
One top suspect, Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, 26, remains at large after escaping back to Belgium early on Saturday and eluding a police dragnet in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, where he lived with his two brothers. One of the brothers blew himself up outside a Paris cafe on Friday, seriously injuring many bystanders.
Meanwhile President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt and intensified air strikes against militants in Syria, after the Kremlin concluded a bomb had destroyed the plane last month, killing 224 people. Putin ordered the Russian navy in the eastern Mediterranean to coordinate its actions on the sea and in the air with the French navy, after the Kremlin used longrange bombers and cruise missiles in Syria and announced it would expand its strike force by 37 planes. “We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them,” Putin said of the plane bombers at a sombre Kremlin meeting broadcast on Tuesday.
The FSB security service swiftly announced a $50 million bounty in a global manhunt for the bombers. Until Tuesday, Russia had played down assertions from Western countries that the Oct 31 crash was the work of terrorists, saying it was important to let the official investigation run its course. But four days after Islamist gunmen and bombers killed at least 129 people in Paris, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB, said in televised comments that traces of foreign- made explosive had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on passengers’ personal belongings.
“We can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act,” Bortnikov said at a Kremlin meeting. Egyptian authorities have detained two employees of Sharm el-Sheikh airport, where the downed plane originated, for questioning, two security officials and an airport employee said on Tuesday. “Seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm el- Sheikh airport,” said one of the security officials, who both declined to be named. The Airbus A321, operated by Metrojet, had been returning Russian holiday makers from the Egyptian resort to St Petersburg when it broke up over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all on board.
A group affiliated with Islamic State claimed responsibility. Putin, wearing a dark suit, presided over a minute of silence in memory of the victims at the Kremlin meeting, before telling security and military chiefs the incident was one of the bloodiest crimes in modern Russian history. “Our air force’s military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”
On Tuesday evening, Putin visited the defence ministry’s command centre in Moscow, to hear reports from military chiefs about what they were doing to implement his orders. As dozens of uniformed servicemen watched on, the defence minister and top military officials gave Putin their reports one-by-one, reporting that long-range bombers had loosed 34 cruise missiles and that Russia would bolster its strike force of around 50 planes and helicopters with a further 37 aircraft. “You are defending Russia and its citizens,” Putin told military chiefs. “I want to thank you for your service and wish you luck.” Russia began air strikes in Syria at the end of September.
It has always said its main target is Islamic State, but most of its bombs in the past hit territory held by other groups opposed to its ally, President Bashar al-Assad. A senior French government source said Russia had launched air strikes against the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria on Tuesday, signalling Moscow was becoming more concerned about the threat posed by IS. A French defence official said Russia’s realisation that its plane had been felled by a bomb was a wake-up call for Moscow. “What’s changed is less that France has changed, but that Russia has,” said the official.
“Russia has acknowledged that the plane was an attack carried out by DAESH (Islamic State). Russia … is now beginning to say to itself that DAESH is also its enemy and has to be hit.” Putin, in language reminiscent of how he talked about Chechen militants during a war when he came to power 15 years ago, ordered the secret services to hunt down those responsible. “We must do this without any statute of limitations and we must find out all their names,” he said, invoking Russia’s right to self defence under the United Nations charter. “Anyone who tries to help the criminals should know that the consequences for trying to shelter them will lie completely on their shoulders.” Russia gave the United States advanced notice before launching a “significant number” of strikes in Syria on Tuesday targeting the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa but a US official said the former Cold War foes were still not coordinating militarily.
France has appealed to Washington and Moscow to join in a grand coalition to fight the Islamist group that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq and has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks in Paris. But Washington, which fiercely opposes Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been at pains to stress that any communication with Moscow was aimed at ensuring pilot safety.
The two countries struck an agreement on air safety protocols in October. “The Russians did provide us notice prior to conducting these strikes, via the Coalition Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar,” the defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. French warplanes, operating within a US-led coalition, also hit targets in Raqqa on Tuesday, targeting a command center and a recruitment center for jihadists. French defense officials said the United States had stepped up intelligence sharing, enabling Paris to identify more specific targets.