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U.S., Russia finalizing document on Syria air safety: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. and Russian militaries are finalizing a memorandum of understanding that sets out basic air safety procedures in the skies above Syria, a U.S. official said after the latest round of talks between the former Cold War foes on Wednesday.

A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry October 9, 2015, shows a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber dropping a bomb in the air over Syria. REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via Reuters

Russia’s entry into Syria’s civil war has stoked concerns about an accident between U.S. and Russia jets. The Pentagon has cited cases in which Russia aircraft came within miles of drones and piloted U.S. fighter jets.

The United States has said it will not alter its air operations against Islamic State in Syria or cooperate with Moscow, given Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It has instead limited military contacts with Moscow to basic air safety, holding a third round of talks on Wednesday.

The Pentagon said in a short statement that the secure-video conference with Russian defense officials had led to progress in discussions aimed at promoting safe air operations over Syria. It offered no further details.

The U.S. official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the memorandum of understanding could be implemented in the near future, after follow-on review.

U.S. proposals, first outlined during a secure video conference between the U.S. and Russian militaries on Oct. 1, include maintaining a safe distance between U.S. and Russian aircraft and using common radio frequencies for distress calls.

The U.S. military says Russian aircraft have repeatedly broken air patrols and come close to unmanned, American drone aircraft. The Pentagon on Tuesday also disclosed that U.S. and Russian aircraft came within visual identification range on Saturday.

Russia’s state ITAR-TASS news agency quoted the defense ministry on Wednesday as saying the Russian SU-30CM jet was within 2-3 km of the U.S. plane, but came close to identify it, “not to scare it.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter slammed Russia on Wednesday for what he called “unprofessional behavior.”

Carter said Russia’s support for Assad showed it was not serious about fighting Islamic State and that Moscow’s actions would fan the war.

“We have not, for our part, and will not agree, to cooperate with Russia as long as they continue to pursue a misguided strategy,” Carter told a gathering of U.S. Army leaders in Washington.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States had declined to send a high-level military delegation to Moscow to discuss deeper coordination in fighting in Syria, as had been proposed by Moscow.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis