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Rise in drone attacks on Russian airbase in Syria: monitor

Russian soldiers display the remains of what they said was a drone belonging to rebel fighters shot down over the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on August 16
Russian soldiers display the remains of what they said was a drone belonging to rebel fighters shot down over the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on August 16 AFP
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Beirut (AFP)

Rebel and jihadist drone attacks on an airbase in Syria used by Damascus ally Russia have increased since last month but all were shot down, a monitor said Friday.

"Drone attacks against Hmeimim have increased" since July, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, referring to Russia's main military base in the war-torn country, where it intervened on the regime's side in 2015 to help fight the armed opposition.

The Britain-based Observatory reported 13 assaults in July and five this month, out of a total of 23 since the start of the year.

In such attacks, small unmanned aircraft have been loaded with explosives.

But "most of the drones are downed by Russian or Syrian air defences before reaching their target", Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. The others were also downed.

Hmeimim lies just west of rebel and jihadist-held territory in the northwestern province of Idlib, which President Bashar al-Assad has said he intends to bring back under his control.

The attackers "are sending a message to Russia that they are able to directly target the main centre for Russian forces in Syria", Abdel Rahman said.

On Thursday, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed "terrorists" for the attacks, using Damascus and Moscow's term for both rebels and jihadists.

"The drone attacks they have launched have become regular in Hmeimim. Our air defences have downed 45 of them," she said.

Earlier this month, Russian army spokesman General Igor Konachenkov also reported a spike in these attempts in July.

"Last month, we observed an increase in attempted drone attacks" against Hmeimim, he said on August 16.

"Our destruction rate is 100 percent," he said.

Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham controls more than half of Idlib while a string of rebel outfits hold most of the rest.

Analysts say Russia-backed regime forces will likely only target a small part of Idlib with any upcoming military campaign, around the town of Jisr al-Shughur.

Sam Heller, from the International Crisis Group think-tank, told AFP last week that "the Russians are convinced that the drones that have targeted their airbase... are emanating from the area around Jisr al-Shughur".

Talks between rebel backer Turkey and Russia are expected to determine the fate of the rest of Idlib, the last province still under rebel control.

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