Russia denies claims of having active ground forces in Syria

MOSCOW, Peter Spinella and Weedah Hamzah (dpa)- The Russian military on Thursday denied claims by Syrian rebel groups that there are active Russian ground forces in the war-torn country.
"There have been no Russian ground forces in Syria, and there are none at present," the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency TASS.

Russian military police are patrolling a civilian safe zone in Syria's north-western Idlib province, near the Turkish border, according to an agreement with Turkey, the ministry said.
Russia is the main military backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Middle Eastern country's multi-sided civil war. Idlib is the last stronghold of rebels seeking to overthrow al-Assad.
Turkey, which has supported certain rebel groups, is concerned about the possibility that fighting in the Idlib region will incite another mass exodus of refugees into Turkey.
A spokesman for a Turkish-backed rebel group, the National Front for Liberation, attested that Russian special forces were actively fighting alongside Syrian state forces in the Idlib region.
"Our observation teams have monitored them and seen that most of the artillery shelling on the countrysides of Idlib and [the neighbouring region of] Hama are manned by those Russian special forces," spokesman Mustapha Naji told dpa.
"We could hear them on our walkie-talkies speaking Russian to each other and giving orders to their soldiers on the ground," Naji said.
A spokesman for the rebel group Jaish al Ezzi, affiliated with the Syrian Free Army, said Russian forces based at Syrian regime posts had unsuccessfully attempted to infiltrate rebel-held areas in Hama a few days ago.
"No matter what the Russian media say, there are Russian special forces fighting on the frontlines alongside regime forces," Jaish al Ezzi spokesman Mustapha Maarati told dpa.
The Syrian state military, backed by Russian air power, has been waging a campaign into Idlib and Hama in recent months, according to an independent monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The offensive has resulted in the deaths of more than 600 civilians and displaced 300,000 people, the Observatory has reported.

Thursday, July 18th 2019
Peter Spinella and Weedah Hamzah (dpa)

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