Russia has deployed antiaircraft missiles in Syria to protect its warplanes carrying out airstrikes against militants, the head of the Russian air force disclosed Thursday.
The missiles were dispatched to territory under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to protect against "all possible threats," Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev said in an interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
"We sent there not only fighter jets, attack aircraft, bomber aircraft, helicopters but also missile systems, as various force majeure circumstances may occur," Bondarev said. "There can be different emergencies, such as hijacking a jet on the territory of a neighboring country or an attack on it. We should be ready for this," he said.
"ISIS are a very mobile gathering of rabble," Bondarev said of the Islamic State fighters that the Kremlin says it is targeting with its Syria intervention. "They use cars, motorbikes, bicycles and donkeys to move around and change their positions after every strike. You can't effectively chase them with tanks, trucks and armored vehicles. Aviation is a different story."
Retaliation by Islamist militants for Russia's involvement in the multinational air campaign against Islamic State is one theory behind the midair breakup of a Russian charter jet. The Metrojet Airbus A321 exploded Saturday over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula about 20 minutes after taking off from the Sharm el Sheik tourist resort on the Red Sea en route to St. Petersburg.
Intelligence sources speaking anonymously have reported in Washington and London that crash investigators examining the aircraft's flight-data and cockpit voice recorders suspect the plane carrying 224 people was destroyed by a bomb.
In an interview Thursday with a Seattle radio station, President Obama said that "there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board."
"We're taking that very seriously," he told the station, KIRO.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, spoke by telephone Thursday about investigation into the Metrojet disaster and cautioned against drawing conclusions as to the cause of the plane's destruction until the probe is completed, the Tass news agency reported. The diplomats warned that such speculation was "counterproductive."
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in late September that the Kremlin was sending warships and attack aircraft to Syria, purportedly to contain Islamic State and other militants controlling large areas of northern Syria. Western governments, however, have accused Putin of targeting rebel militias that have been fighting to oust Kremlin ally Assad for nearly five years.
U.S. intelligence sources on Wednesday alleged that Russia has doubled the number of its troops in Syria to about 4,000. They are concentrated around the government-controlled Latakia area and Russia's base at the Mediterranean Sea port of Tartus. Russian officials have denied, however, that they plan to wage ground operations in the war-torn country.
The Tass account of Bondarev's interview said the Russian military presence in Syria includes more than 50 warplanes and helicopters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the reports of boosted Russian forces in Syria.
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