BEIRUT (Reuters) - Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad in western Syria denied receiving any support from the Russian air force, saying that on the contrary it continued to bomb them and rejecting comments by a top Russian general on Monday.
A separate, recently formed alliance of armed groups - including some that identify themselves as FSA - said its fighters had benefited indirectly from Russian air strikes during a recent battle with insurgents including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, but denied any direct Russian support.
The groups were responding to comments by a senior Russian army general who said the Russian air force was conducting dozens of air strikes in Syria on a daily basis to support Free Syrian Army fighters who he said were fighting alongside government troops against Islamic State militants.
Russian news agencies quoted Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russian army’s general staff, as saying the number of Free Syrian Army units was “rising all the time”.
“They are also provided with weapons, ammunition and material support,” he said, echoing a statement made by President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Later on Monday, Vladimir Kozhin, Putin’s aide for military and technical cooperation, said Russia does not supply the Free Syrian Army with weapons, according to the RIA news agency.
There was no immediate explanation for Kozhin’s apparent contradiction of Gerasimov’s remarks.
Russia has not given the names of the FSA groups it is talking about. Numerous groups identify themselves as part of the FSA, which does not have a central command and control structure.
Some of the most powerful FSA groups have received military support from Saudi Arabia and the United States. These groups have been regularly targeted in the Russian aerial campaign that got underway in support of Assad on Sept. 30, and have reiterated denials of receiving any help from Moscow.
The alliance whose fighters benefited from Russian air strikes is the Democratic Forces of Syria, which groups the well-organised Kurdish YPG militia with a number of Arab groups and has received U.S. support to fight Islamic State.
One of its factions, Jaysh al-Thuwwar, was recently involved in a days-long battle north of Aleppo with insurgents including the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and the Levant Front, which is widely seen as Turkish-backed.
During that battle, Russian warplanes had struck Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front fighters who were encircling Democratic Forces of Syria fighters, said Talal Salu, spokesman for the Democratic Forces of Syria.
“They saw them in gathered in the hundreds so certainly it was an opportunity for them to target them, but not through an agreement with us,” he told Reuters, adding that his group’s critics were now saying they are receiving Russian support.
“People are trying to direct the matter towards the Democratic Forces of Syria because they think that they offered logistical support to us. They did not offer logistical support,” he told Reuters. “There has been no contact, no agreement, or cooperation between us and the Russian army.”
The Free Syrian Army groups targeted in Russian air strikes in western Syria have frequently been those that have received U.S.-made TOW missiles, the most powerful weapon in the rebel arsenal.
“Today our headquarters in Jabal Akrad were bombed by Russia. Yesterday our headquarters in rural northern Aleppo were destroyed. I have 10 wounded. This is Russian support,” said Hassan Haj Ali, head of a prominent FSA group who took part in a Syrian opposition meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia last week.
“Putin and his generals are a bunch of liars,” said Haj Ali, who commands the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal group.
Mohamed Rasheed, spokesman for Jaysh al-Nasr, another group represented at the opposition meeting in Riyadh, said: “This is totally untrue. On the contrary, the Russian warplanes are bombing our headquarters on a daily basis.”
Reporting by Tom Perry; editing by Giles Elgood