Russian warplanes on Tuesday flew a bombing run from an Iranian airstrip against jihadist groups in war-torn Syria, the defence ministry said. This is the first time Moscow has reported using an Iranian air base.
The raids mark the first time that Russia has publicly stated that it has used a base in a Middle East country other than Syria since the Kremlin launched its bombing campaign in support of long-time ally Bashar al-Assad last September.
"On August 16 Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Su-34 frontline bombers, flying with a full bomb load from the Hamedan air base (Islamic Republic of Iran), conducted a group air strike against targets of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups in the provinces of Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Idlib," the ministry said in a statement.
The strikes resulted in the destruction of "five large warehouses with weapons, ammunition and fuel" and jihadist training camps near Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, the village of Saraqeb in the Idlib region and Al-Bab, an IS-held town in Aleppo province, the statement said.
The bombing also targeted three command centres near the village of Jafra and Deir Ezzor, killing "a large number of fighters", Moscow added. Conducting its bombing raids from Iran will dramatically cut the time it takes Moscow's long-range bombers to reach Syria. They had recently been flying from a base in southern Russia.
Moscow has used warplanes stationed at its Hmeimim airbase outside the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, as well as warships stationed in the Caspian Sea and a submarine in the Mediterranean Sea to launch cruise missile attacks on Syrian territory. A Russian senator last week said the country was mulling plans to expand its airbase in Syria into a permanent military facility.
An unnamed military source also told Interfax news agency Monday that the Russian army had sent requests to Iran and Iraq to fire cruise missiles across their airspace. Iran and Russia are the two firmest backers of the Assad regime, and have opposed international calls for the Syrian leader to step down in a bid to resolve a civil war that has killed more than 290,000 people since it erupted in March 2011.
Iran is Assad's main regional ally and has provided steady military, financial, and political support to the regime. Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov was in Tehran on Monday, where he discussed the "high mutual interest" of deeper cooperation between Russia and Iran in the Middle East, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu claimed separately in comments aired on Monday that Russia and the United States are also close to joining forces around Syria's ravaged second city of Aleppo, where Russian planes and regime forces are battling rebels for control.
But in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau refused to confirm any collaboration. A senior Russian diplomat in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told Interfax Monday that the Russian and American militaries were in the process of "agreeing some concrete practical issues" regarding humanitarian aid deliveries to the city.
Fighting for Aleppo has intensified after regime troops seized control of the last supply route into rebel-held areas in mid-July. The increased fighting has raised concerns for the estimated 1.5 million civilians still in Aleppo, including some 250,000 in rebel-held areas.