WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande pressed Russia on Tuesday to focus its attacks in Syria on Islamic State militants after Turkey heightened tensions in the region by downing a Russian plane.
Obama and Hollande also urged Russia and Turkey not to let the situation escalate after Turkey, a NATO ally, said it shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border after it repeatedly violated Turkish air space.
Obama said the United States did not have enough information yet to form conclusions about the incident but added similar confrontations could be avoided if Russia stopped attacking “moderate” Syrian rebels who are battling forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“This points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries,” Obama said.
If Russia directs its energies toward Islamic State forces, “some of those conflicts or potentials for mistakes or escalation are less likely to occur,” Obama said.
Russia is supporting Assad’s government. Western nations insist Assad needs to step down for peace to take hold in Syria.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the United States believed the Russian jet was hit inside Syrian air space after a brief incursion into Turkish air space. The assessment was based on heat observed from the jet, the official said.
Russia condemned the Turkish action, vowing severe consequences.
The White House said later on Tuesday that Obama spoke by phone with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan about the need to de-escalate tensions after the incident.
Obama expressed "U.S. and NATO support for Turkey's right to defend its sovereignty," the White House statement added.
Obama and Hollande spoke at a White House news conference as the French president visited Washington to coordinate a stepped-up military campaign against Islamic state following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
As the two men were talking, French and U.S. jets destroyed an Islamic State command center near Mosul in Iraq, a French official said.
Hollande will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday in Moscow as part of a series of talks to increase international pressure on Islamic State after the Paris attacks.
"I will ask President Putin, as I've done before ... that the strikes must be against Daesh (Islamic State), against terrorism," Hollande said.
France has stipulated that for closer coordination with Russia to occur, Moscow must stop Assad from bombing civilians, focus its strikes solely on Islamic State and similar groups and commit seriously to finding a political solution without Assad.
A second senior French official said Paris was under no illusion that getting Putin to coordinate more closely would be easy.
Hollande said France was already coordinating with Russian ships in the eastern Mediterranean since the French Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier arrived in the region on the weekend.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman)
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