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U.S. blasts Russia, Syria as their new offensive escalates

MOSCOW -- A Russian airstrike in northern Syria this week killed at least 30 members of an al Qaeda-linked group, including some of its leaders, the Russian military said Thursday.

The statement comes amid a new wave of airstrikes in the war-torn country, with the besieged rebel-held part of the city of Aleppo facing its third consecutive day of heavy bombardment by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The Russians, who announced the new offensive in Syria this week, have denied bombing the rebel enclave.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest renewed the Obama Administration’s sharp condemnation Thursday of both the Syrian and Russian governments, for what he called their “disgraceful” tactics in the grinding civil war.

“They are frankly targeting innocent civilians, trying to bomb them into submission by targeting hospitals and playgrounds and other locations that are frequented by innocent civilians, including women and children,” Earnests told MSNBC in Berlin, where he was traveling with President Obama.

Noting that the international community had expressed moral outrage at the military operations in Syria, Earnest said “the question really is what can the international community do -- lead by the United States -- to try to bring that violence down, and try to make sure that innocent people are not caught in the crossfire.”

He said Secretary of State John Kerry was continuing to work “doggedly” to try to bring the warring factions together to end the crisis, but admitted it had achieved little thus far. But he insisted that diplomacy remains “our only path.”

“There is not a military solution that we can impose on the terrible civil war inside of Syria,” he said, condemning Moscow as being “determined to prop up the Assad regime” and willing to “engage in some disgusting tactics to try to make that a reality.”

At least 59 people were killed across northern Syria in the first two days of the offensive announced by Russia, including besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo, as well as the surrounding countryside and the nearby rebel-held province of Idlib.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the strike targeting al Qaeda took place in Idlib on Tuesday. It was launched from Russia’s aircraft carrier, which has been deployed to the Mediterranean, and hit the al Qaeda-linked militant group now known as Fatah al-Sham Front, he said.

The strike marked the combat debut of the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier. According to Russian intelligence reports, it was confirmed that three prominent leaders of the al Qaeda-linked group - Muhammad Helala, Abu Jaber Harmuja and Abul Baha al-Asfari - were among those killed, Konashenkov added. He said al-Asfari had overseen the group’s attempts to break the siege of Aleppo.

Russia has said its air raids and missile strikes have only been targeting Idlib province and the central province of Homs to root out militants of ISIS and the al Qaeda-linked group.

Meanwhile, Syrian warplanes have been pounding rebel-held districts of Aleppo, home to nearly 275,000 people.

On Wednesday, bombs hit an Aleppo district that houses several medical facilities, including the central blood bank, and forced Syrian staff and patients in the only remaining pediatric hospital to cower in a basement as buildings collapsed around them.

The Russia-declared offensive came hours after President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump discussed Syria in a phone call and agreed on the need to combine efforts in the fight against what the Kremlin called their No. 1 enemy - “international terrorism and extremism.”

Months of negotiations between Moscow and President Barack Obama’s administration have failed to cement a long-term cease-fire in Aleppo, which has become the focus of the war between Assad and rebels fighting to topple him.

Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is fighting alongside the rebels, but the Islamic State group has no presence in Aleppo.