BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Russian warships heading for Syria could be used to target civilians in the besieged city of Aleppo, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Tuesday, calling on Moscow to implement a lasting ceasefire.
NATO is monitoring the movement of the eight-strong carrier battle group from northern Russia towards Gibraltar en route to the eastern Mediterranean, where alliance officials fear it will launch fighter bombers to hit northwestern Syria early in November.
“The battle group may be used to increase Russia’s ability to take part in combat operations over Syria and to conduct even more air strikes against Aleppo,” Stoltenberg said.
“The concern is that the carrier group can be used as a platform for increased air strikes against civilians in Aleppo,” he told a news conference, calling for a halt to all bombings.
The naval group, which passed through the English Channel on Friday, is made up of Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, as well as a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, two anti-submarine warships and four support vessels, likely escorted by submarines, NATO officials said.
The naval deployment, a rare sight since the end of the Soviet Union, is carrying dozens of fighter bombers and helicopters and is expected to join around 10 other Russian vessels already off the Syrian coast, diplomats said.
Washington’s envoy to NATO said Russia was within its right to move vessels through international waters. Military analysts say the deployment is a show of Russian force, as few countries have the ability to send an aircraft carrier group so far from home, although it will likely rely on refueling in Spain.
“The problem would arise if this ship (Admiral Kuznetsov) contributes to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in northwest Syria, particularly in and around Aleppo,” U.S. Ambassador Douglas Lute told reporters.
Western leaders are seeking maximum diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin to halt the intense bombardment of the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo that has killed hundreds of civilians including children since a ceasefire broke down on Oct. 3.
Russia said on Tuesday neither its war planes nor those of Syria had launched air strikes on Aleppo since Moscow said it was suspending bombing seven days ago, contradicting a monitor who says air strikes on some areas resumed on Saturday.
Lute said bombing continued, although he did not give details. “We do know that the bombing continues today, both by Russian aircraft and by Assad Syrian national aircraft,” he said, referring to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While diplomats seek an end to a 5-1/2-year-old civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million others, Lute said the underlying problem was that Russia refused to acknowledge its real aims in Syria.
“The reason given for the Russian intervention in Syria was to target ISIL,” said Lute, using an acronym for Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. “It is continually the case that that is not who they are targeting. ISIL is not in Aleppo.”
Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Richard Balmforth